What if, sometime between yesterday and today, the electricity were to suddenly go out all around when the world, and when it comes back, practically all human memory of the Beatles is suddenly erased? That’s the premise of Danny Boyle’s hardworking charmer Yesterday, a fantasy that works well enough as a Beatles love letter but falls short in the love-story department. With a script by romantic-comedy maestro Richard Curtis (writer-director of the half-maligned, half-beloved Love Actually and writer of the arguably more tolerable Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill) and directed by the crowd-pleasing mastermind behind Slumdog Millionaire, Yesterday is generically upbeat. But its romantic dreams are suspect. Is this a movie that springs from the idea of what men think women want from love, instead of striving to connect with anything—beyond the Beatles, that is—that’s actually appealing to women? Many of the great romantic comedies have been written by men: Who’s going to look askance at Preston Sturges, let alone William Shakespeare? But the old guard has long been selling women short, and Yesterday isn’t helping.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is an aspiring singer-songwriter—his signature tune is a peppy but undistinguished little number called “Summer Song”—who’s just about to throw in the towel and go back to teaching, which is somehow presented as a fate worse than death. His manager and best friend, Ellie (Lily James), who herself teaches mathematics to young tykes, urges him to avoid this terrible reversal. She has faith in him! She’s also secretly in love with him, though he doesn’t see it. And then, one day, just as the aforementioned electrical outage happens, Jack is hit by a bus. When he awakes, he appears to be the only human on Earth who remembers the Beatles. He figures this out when his friends give him a new guitar to replace the one smashed in the wreck, and he tries it out with the plaintive strains of “Yesterday,” a song they don’t recognize. When he assures them it’s one of the greatest songs ever written, one of them shoots back, “It’s not Coldplay. It’s not ‘Fix You’!”
Adjusting to this alternative reality, Jack scrambles to memorize as many Beatles lyrics as he can recall—hilarity ensues as he struggles to remember who the hell does what in “Eleanor Rigby.” Eventually, with the help of Ed Sheeran (who appears as a version of himself) and this faux Sheeran’s faux manager, Debra (an overwound Kate McKinnon), Jack becomes a huge star by performing songs he didn’t write and passing them off as his own.
Cute, right? It’s all perfectly charming if you don’t look too closely, and even if you do, Yesterday proves one thing: The appeal of the Beatles is built right into the DNA of their songs—or, perhaps, it’s just hardwired into many of us. Patel does his own singing in Yesterday—the songs include “Let It Be,” “In My Life” and, of course, the title track—and his voice, dusky and sweet, is perfectly enjoyable. Then again, these songs have the ability to elevate even terrible street buskers and other random performers at least a notch or two above whatever sorry state they usually languish in. If you stick to the basic elements, and manage to stay on key, the words and music do 80 percent of the work. These songs aren’t indestructible, but it’s remarkable how durable they are, like little army tanks of love.
So at least there’s love in Yesterday‘s music. But where’s the love in the plot? Patel and James are extremely likable, together and separately; you want to see them get together. In fact, you want it so badly, you find it hard to believe it didn’t happen years earlier. We’re asked to believe the fiction in which the stunning, kind, unselfish woman pines away for the cute but clueless guy who, conveniently, doesn’t appear to be interested in dating or sleeping with anyone, even after he becomes a star. Hey, it could happen—or at least we can summon enough faux gullibility to go along with it.
But how starry-eyed are you willing to be, just for Yesterday’s sake? The following constitutes something of a spoiler, so please avert your eyes if you want everything in the movie to be a complete surprise: The love story here hinges on one of those instances when a man confesses his love for a woman in front of a stadium-size crowd while her face—at first taken aback, eventually delighted—is projected on a giant screen, so large you can see every pore. Somehow, this type of romantic declaration—a category that also includes highly public surprise marriage proposals, in which bystanders are required to beam with approval—has long been accepted as adorable, the type of shout-it-from-the-rooftops affirmation that women dream of. Some women probably do, in real life, love this sort of thing, and if you’re crazy about a guy and thrilled that he wants to advertise it to the world, that’s all that matters.
What about the rest of us? Is there anybody else out there who cringes at both the heavy-duty public display and the candid-camera surprise element? Yet this moment is the romantic apex of Yesterday. It’s a seemingly open-hearted moment that’s actually sized to the exact proportions of a movie—or a TV, or an iPhone—screen. And maybe you could defend it as a cinematic device, even if you wouldn’t want it to happen to you in real life. But it’s the exact opposite of the tenderness you hear, built right into the chords, of a song like “In My Life,” among the most quietly dazzling pop ballads ever written, a song that puts romantic love in the context of all the other “people and things” one might love in a lifetime. The Beatles were larger than life, but at least part of their greatness was built on subtlety. That’s a language Yesterday doesn’t understand, even though it spends a great deal of time mouthing the words.