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‘Yesterday’ review: A world without The Beatles

As a charming offbeat romcom that highlights the music of The Beatles, ‘Yesterday’ is easy to let into your heart.

As a Beatles fan myself, I’m inclined to say that any film that features their music is automatically worthy of the admission price. The band rightfully deserves their pedestal in rock n’ roll history – not only because of their cross-generational appeal, but also because of their seminal work that continues to be the musical influence of several artists to date. In many ways, John, Paul, George and Ringo shaped the music industry and its booming celebrity culture. Who knows, maybe without them, Ed Sheeran might be off singing metal tunes instead.

In the alternate reality created by Yesterday – where Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) finds himself as the only person who remembers their songs after a freak accident – nothing much has really changed in the music landscape. Ed Sheeran still has the same hits like “Shape of You” and Coldplay is still best known for their song “Fix You.” To think that The Beatles are way beyond influential, the erasure of their legacy will surely affect the world in more ways than one can imagine. But no, like their song “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” la la la la life (apparently) goes on.

Ticket to fame. Himesh Patel plays an accidental superstar in ‘Yesterday.’

Truth is, the film dodges the thought-provoking questions brought by its plot. It’s more committed in delivering its fun and sentimental themes, rather than serving a cause and effect commentary in pop culture history. Well, that’s fine by me. I mainly came here for the sing along, plus it’s not like the film is a dystopian sci-fi anyway – leave it to Black Mirror in figuring out the nitty gritty repercussions of a Beatles-less world. Yesterday turns out to be half the film it’s premise promises to be, but that should not deter you from enjoying it.

And so in his eureka moment – where the camera accelerates to his face with such excitement – struggling musician Jack suddenly realizes the opportunity to build a career for himself. He quickly lists down all the Beatles’ songs to his best recollection and passes them as his own in a local radio shack. Next thing he knows, a captivated Ed Sheeran shows in his doorstep to invite him as his opening act. He also catches the eye of a label executive Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) who offers him the “poisoned chalice of fame,” as she would call it. He signs a record contract and boom, instant superstardom follows. Cue in the fans – from adolescent girls to grown up men – who scream his name in adulation. 

Ed Sheeran challenges Jack to a song-writing duel in ‘Yesterday.’

With his stack of ready made hits, Jack is going places. But the question of morality begs as he’s basically a fraud: how long can he “carry that weight?” Yesterday serves as a peek into the life of stardom – the costs of fame and wishful thinking. A sudden chill goes through my body when Jack performs “Help!” with such punkish intensity. I realize that the Beatles has always written this song as a subconscious cry for help.

Yesterday works best as a hilarious piece of entertainment, bolstered by a perpetually confused yet charismatic and musically talented Himesh Patel in his movie debut. All of his performances here are impressively done live and he interprets these classic songs with much sincerity and soul. He shows good comic timing too in the fun sequences like Jack struggling to remember the lyrics for “Eleanor Rigby” and the occasional Google searches as he realizes that the music of The Beatles is not the only thing that’s vanished from the face of the earth.

Himesh Patel performs “Help!” to a sea of adulating fans.

The film also pokes fun in the ails of music industry, best embodied by McKinnon’s obnoxious and opportunistic character. She delivers her ruthless lines with perfect deadpan humor. Sheeran, on the other hand, plays a fictionalized, semi-egotistical version of himself who mines a good laugh from his suggestion to ruin the lyrics of “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.”

Yesterday is ultimately a high concept romantic comedy at heart. As Jack rises to fame, he must weigh in the things that really matter to him. That includes his best friend/road manager/ardent cheerleader Ellie (played by the bubbly and ever-radiant Lily James), the girl who believes in him way back when he’s still unpopular. Writer Richard Curtis (Love Actually, About Time) easily spins the story into a feel good movie filled with profound messages on the different forms of love and success. The only thing that’s unconvincing here is Lily James being stuck on the friend zone – I mean, really?  Otherwise, Patel and James have a palpable chemistry to keep the love angle going despite the minor plot lapses.

Lily James and Himesh Patel sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand.

Yesterday is a musical fantasy that’s not bothered by the silly nature of its phenomenon. Yet it proves to be largely fun not just because of the goodwill of its soundtrack but also due to the sympathetic rags to riches story that Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) capably directs. Binding its viewers with the universal healing power of music, it makes a touching case about preserving art and that’s something always worth singing about. Oh, I believe in Yesterday.

4 out of 5 stars
Directed by Danny Boyle, ‘Yesterday’ stars Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, Joel Fry, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Alexander Arnold, Sophai Di Martino, Harry Michell, Lamorne Morris and Robert Carlyle. 116 minutes. PG-13.
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