In the new comedy from England, Yesterday, something freaky worthy of a Twilight Zone episode occurs, and it’s global. A total electrical blackout of an unknown origin hits every country around the world. Nowhere is spared. The blackout, which switches off every power source, affecting every building, radio, TV, and computer, lasts about 12 seconds. No one knows why. It just happens. And when power returns, all the lights, TVs, radios, and computers reboot. In fact, the whole world reboots. But like a computer that accidentally shuts down, clears its history, then rebuilds once power becomes operational, certain programs go missing, some permanently, though at first, no one notices.
Presumably, when the blackout occurred, it affected people around the world in different ways. Everyone would have their story. If it was the Twilight Zone, they’d be one guy coming off as a lunatic while trying to convince the world that the Earth isn’t what it used to. No one would listen. It would conclude with an ironic moral. If this was science fiction, the film might be about a lone scientist, probably a nerdy teenager, who enlists his confused but understanding girlfriend and some fellow quantum physic students to investigate what happened and why they’re now all living in a parallel world. But Yesterday isn’t sci-fi, nor are there paranormal events or fourth dimensions to be explored. It’s a comic musical fantasy as experienced by an ordinary bloke from Britain, a struggling singer-songwriter who can’t be sure but thinks that something really weird has happened, and no one around him seems to notice.
Jack Malik (popular BBC soap actor, Himesh Patel) can’t get the breaks. Only his childhood friend Ellie (Lily James) has faith in his performing talent. “You think you hear something special in my songs,” he tells her, “And I love you for it.” But because he can’t attract the crowds, he’s thinking of quitting and keeping his job stacking shelves at the local Price Warehouse. “This is the end of my long, winding road,” he states.
But that night, while riding home, the mysterious worldwide blackout hits the globe, only Jack doesn’t experience it. A passing bus knocks the man off his bike and sends him to the hospital unconscious. He escapes the whole thing by involuntarily sleeping through it. When he finally wakes, he’s missing two teeth, a guitar, and a bike, all victims of the crash. But while Ellie and his friends help Jack get back on his feet, he starts to notice odd little things that don’t quite make sense. When his mother offers him Pepsi, Jack answers he would rather have a Coke. “I don’t know what you’re saying,” says mum. And even though he’s never been a smoker, when he states aloud that he could do with a cigarette, no one knows what he’s talking about. “I don’t know what you guys are playing at,” he states, “But this is so weird.” And the best is yet to come.
When Ellie presents Jack with a new guitar, he responds by playing a passage from Yesterday, which dumbfounds everyone at the table. “It’s Paul McCartney,” Jack insists, but he gets nothing back from those around him, just blank faces. Not only does no one know the song, they’ve never heard of Paul McCartney, and they have no clue who The Beatles are, if they ever existed. “It’s not Coldplay,” says someone at the table.
A quick Google search also proves fruitless. No Beatles. No Sergeant Peppers. No Penny Lane. No Yesterday. Nothing. Not even the Gallagher brothers and Oasis. “Well, that figures,” mutters Jack. Even some of his personal vinyls are gone. All he now has in the ‘B’ section is David Bowie.
And there’s Jack’s dilemma. Whatever happened when the world rebooted itself may have affected everyone he knows but it completely by-passed him. As far as he’s aware, he’s the only one who remembers The Beatles. All he has to do is try to recall the lyrics and get them down, which is not as easy as it sounds, particularly if you’re still in your twenties. Yesterday is no problem, and Let It Be comes easy enough, even if his mum calls it Leave It Be, but Eleanor Rigby proves a little tricky. Exactly who is darning those socks at night, where does the part about picking up the rice where a wedding has been come to play, and at what point does a Father Mackenzie fit into all of this? It’s not easy ripping off classics and pretending their yours when you can’t remember the words.
Though Yesterday is directed by Danny Boyle, it doesn’t feel like a Danny Boyle film. Much of that kinetic, adrenaline-fueled visual style often associated with the director is absent, save for the occasional angled shot or scene-establishing oversized titles that flash across the screen. This is really a Richard Curtis film, the writer responsible for TV’s Black Adder, Mr. Bean, and The Vicar of Dibley, and the big screen’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love Actually. Like those films, Yesterday’s humor is somewhat twee, very English, but always amusing. You can’t help but maintain a huge smile throughout. The dialog has the same comic rhythms and emotional beats as spoken by all of Curtis’ past characters. Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s idiot but likable best friend, is a virtual retread of Rhys Ifans’ Spike, the idiot but likable best friend in Notting Hill.
In addition to fine turns from Himesh Patel and Lily James, there are also appearances from James Corden as his TV talk show self, Ed Sheeran as a comic, self-deprecating version of himself – his ring tone is his 2017 hit, Shape of You – and SNL’s Kate McKinnon as Jack’s aggressive new American agent set to make her fortune on his ‘talent,’ cheerfully declaring, “I know nothing about his life. He’s just a product to me.”
The reference to Maxwell’s Silver Hammer aside, all of the songs covered are mostly the hits, the singles, or the popular radio plays, but they’re as Jack remembers them. Popular album cuts, such as Drive My Car, Norwegian Wood, and Martha My Dear don’t get a mention. Considering the filmmakers had to pay around $10 million just for the rights of using Yesterday, keeping references of the other songs to a minimum is economically understandable. But in case life-long fans of the fab four are feeling overly concerned that something they cherish is being used for nothing more than a backdrop for a trifling gimmick of a comedy, think again.
If you’re in that protective Beatles camp and can’t buy the whole business of a global shutdown and a new world reboot, ignore it. That’s not the point. The freaky phenomenon is just a vehicle to create a situation. One thing’s clear, Yesterday is very much a sincere love-letter to the work of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. There’s never a doubt that writer Curtis and the film itself has nothing but the utmost admiration for the immeasurable worth of The Beatles and their influential catalog of music. As one character from Liverpool will tell Jack in a moment of genuine, heartfelt emotion, “A world without the Beatles is ultimately worse.” And that, ladies and gentleman, is what Yesterday is really about.
MPAA Rating: PG13 Length: 112 Minutes