“Yesterday” is a little bit daffy, a little bit sappy and lotta bit heartwarming.
This does not seem like something out of the oeuvre of Danny Boyle, the British director known for “Trainspotting,” “127 Hours,” “28 Days Later” and other dire portraits of humanity at its brink. But then he also made “Slumdog Millionaire,” a fairy tale-ish story about an Indian kid changing his life by winning a game show, and it’s to that more tenderhearted, hopeful skew that this film belongs.
But then, he is paired with screenwriter Richard Curtis, an expert heartstring-puller: “Love Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral” as well as the criminally unseen “About Time.”
Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a 27-year-old Indian-Brit who’s been trying to make it as a singer -- and failing spectacularly. His gigs consist of street warbling for tips, dive bars and kids’ birthday parties. Pretty much his only fan is Ellie (Lily James), his childhood friend and erstwhile manager.
She drives him around, bucks him up and -- because this is a romantic comedy -- is ravishingly in love with him, despite Jack being completely blinkered about it.
He’s ready to pitch it in when a strange thing happens -- a worldwide electrical blackout, possibly caused by solar flares, during which he is clocked by a bus. When he wakes up in the hospital, he is astonished to discover that nobody else has ever heard of The Beatles. When he strums out “Yesterday” for his friends, they are entranced and wonder at how such a mediocre musician wrote a masterpiece.
Jack quickly realizes his opportunity: he can pass off the entire Beatles songbook as his own work, instantly catapulting to fame and fortune. Of course, there are bumps along the way, like indifferent parents (Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal), difficulty recalling some of the lyrics and the lack of recording equipment.
A nice local fellow named Gavin (Alexander Arnold) provides the latter, and Jack also gets a boost from Ed Sheeran, playing himself, who invites Jack to be his opening act and is quickly eclipsed by him. It’s an odd, anxious turn for a real-life star, who at one point challenges Jack to a speed songwriting contest, only to be bested by John, Paul, Ringo and George.
Patel is a winning presence and a pretty decent singer, too. I also liked James a lot, squishing up her face and doing a charming/frumpy thing that would’ve been played by Winona Ryder 25 years ago.
My patience wore thin at some of the obvious romcom baggage, like Ellie waiting a decade and a half to tell Jack that she cares for him, and then making unreasonable demands at the moment he begins to return her favor. Or the constant interruption of pivotal conversations by ringing phones or intruding people.
There’s a silent mode, Jack!
Kate McKinnon turns up fairly late as Debra, a mercenary producer from L.A. who is quite open about the fact that she views Jack as a “product” who will make her money. She sets him up with a bunch of phony marketing types and frets about his image. “Is this the best that you can look?” she asks.
Even though it’s totally a Kate-McKinnon-doing-her-SNL-shtick turn, I still welcomed the comic relief. Some is also supplied by Joel Fry as Rocky, who’s the dimwitted screw-up of Jack’s social circle but also kindhearted and genuine. Rocky becomes Jack’s roadie/body man/spirit guide, keeping him (mostly) on schedule and humble.
And, of course, there’s the glory of all that Beatles music. I risk eternal damnation and a Twitter pox by opining that I think the Beatles are a really good band that somehow got exalted to GOAT status. Still, toe-tapping will unavoidably commence.
“Yesterday” takes a lot of obvious turns, though there are a few unexpected ones that demonstrate a little more storytelling ambition. Jack is increasingly haunted by thoughts that he will be exposed as a fraud, which leads to a final act that is both farfetched and emotionally pleasing.
A few discordant notes aside, it’s a lovely tune of a tale.