Inevitably, I came to the Beatles through the movies. I was dimly aware of them in my childhood, but when John Lennon was killed, it didn’t mean anything to 6-year-old me. Come my early teens, I was a budding cinephile who learned that A Hard Day’s Night and Help! were taken seriously as films, so I saw those. That’s when I truly heard the Beatles for the first time, and my reaction was the same as everyone else’s: Wow, those guys were really good. The British comedy Yesterday asks what would happen if everyone could hear the Beatles’ endlessly replayed songs for the first time again. For all the movies that have been made about rock’s greatest band, there isn’t a lovelier tribute to them than this.
The film is set in the present day, as Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling, Beatles-loving musician in Lowestoft, Suffolk. After years of failure, he resolves to quit music, only to be hit by a bus a few minutes later as a result of a mysterious global power outage. He wakes up in what seems to be the same world, except that all trace of the Beatles has vanished from Jack’s record collection, written and digital history, and everyone’s memory except his. He plays “Yesterday” for his friends, and they think it’s his best work, though not as good as Coldplay. With no one to say otherwise, Jack does what a lot of us would do and restarts his music career by passing off “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Eleanor Rigby” and “All You Need Is Love” and the rest as his music. By the way, Oasis is also gone from this world, but Jack’s not as upset about that.
Jack eventually becomes a global music star after his new Lennon-and-McCartney-penned songs catch the attention of Ed Sheeran (portraying himself as a well-meaning doofus). The script cleverly ties in Jack’s growing fame with his romantic life, as he belatedly realizes that his best friend and manager El (Lily James) has been in love with him. James is at her funniest and most charming here, and she makes El seem like a lot to lose. The romance works much better than Jack’s moral guilt about claiming someone else’s work as his own. The satire of the contemporary music industry could be sharper — though we do get Sheeran pressuring Jack into changing a Beatles’ song title to “Hey Dude” — and the movie misses a huge opportunity to comment on how we might perceive these songs differently if we thought an Asian guy had written them. Still, the film neatly splits the difference between the grubby temptations of stardom and Jack’s conviction that the world will be a better place with Beatles songs in it.
Besides James, Kate McKinnon drops in as a soulless record executive and manages to make the hoary archetype funny. (Resolving to give Jack a makeover, she tells him, “You are skinny but somehow also round.”) As Jack’s mostly useless stoner buddy, Joel Fry delivers an unexpectedly touching monologue when he says that witnessing Jack’s rise has made him discover his purpose in life. The lead role demands musical chops from its star, and Patel, a newcomer from British TV, overflows with them. Perhaps his tenor is a bit thin for the heavy lifting of “Hey Jude,” but he rocks hard without strain on “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and is thoroughly winning in the final scene, when he sings “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” with a bunch of schoolkids.
The script is by Richard Curtis, the writer of Notting Hill and Love Actually. Last fall, I pronounced his artistic decline, but maybe he just needed to find a better director. Danny Boyle is the best director he has ever had, as the man behind Slumdog Millionaire cuts the corners neatly on some comic scenes, like when Sheeran shows up at Jack’s house and his parents mill around the kitchen while ignoring the bearded white guy with the glasses. Jack’s pilgrimage to Liverpool is filmed like a journey to an enchanted place. An ingenious twist comes from the two menacing people who seem to be stalking Jack on his travels around the world. Even better is the unexpected emotional climax late in the film when Jack visits an old man who clarifies what Jack needs to do. Revealing any more would only spoil it, but the old man tells Jack that happiness and love are even more important than putting out great music. I’m sure the Fab Four would approve of that wisdom.
Starring Himesh Patel and Lily James. Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Richard Curtis. Rated PG-13.