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‘Yesterday’ is low-key bonkers and a wholesome good time: Review



I was a couple of hours out from my screening of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday when I realized it would probably make me cry.

My dad grew up in England during the ’70s, so while I wasn’t raised on most classic American music, I’ve been on a steady Beatles diet since preschool. I find comfort in the warm embrace of a Scouse accent, the signature sound of Liverpool aka home of my cousins and the Beatles. And to top it all off, Yesterday boasts a South Asian leading man. I would be lucky to survive this movie.

Yesterday is the story of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling musician who’s decided to call it quits. He’s biking home one night when there’s a worldwide blackout. During the 12 seconds of total darkness, Jack gets hit by a bus, and when he wakes up in the hospital he’s the only person on earth who remembers the Beatles.

Let’s pause for a moment here to appreciate the truly crazy premise by screenwriters Richard Curtis (who also directed) and Jack Barth, which Yesterday sometimes teases but truly has no intention of exploring. Whole television shows have been dedicated to solving mysterious blackouts, and I’m not saying Yesterday merits a sci-fi sequel to solve the mystery but also yes that is exactly what I’m saying! The Beatles aren’t the only thing erased from history during the blackout, and little pockets of anomalies pop up throughout the film: Oasis doesn’t exist either, but a flashback shows Jack performing it in school as a boy. What the hell do the other students remember this as?

When he realizes his unique position, Jack does the only thing he can and starts to play and record Beatles songs with the support of best friend/manager Ellie (Lily James). He’s never clamoring to claim credit, but of course implies and plays along because the truth is so utterly outlandish. It’s a slow road to success, even with some of the most essential music of human culture in his pocket. Jack plays parties and restaurants, records a demo in a warehouse, and it’s only through the blessing of his number one fan-slash-guardian angel Ed Sheeran that he breaks into the mainstream as a viral sensation. 

Read that last sentence again. This movie!

Ed Sheeran convinces Jack (Himesh Patel) to record a song called 'Hey Dude' in 'Yesterday.'

Ed Sheeran convinces Jack (Himesh Patel) to record a song called ‘Hey Dude’ in ‘Yesterday.’

It’s hard to suss out Sheeran’s reality vs. his character in this performance since we’ve seen so little of his acting before, but his demeanor vacillates between mellow celeb-just-like-you and the possibility of a jealous range monster shaped like ring-hungry Bilbo Baggins lurking underneath. It’s sweet that “Ed Sheeran” would befriend and help Jack, but also kind of thrilling to consider that he might regularly contemplate murdering said friend in his sleep.

Like the Beatles and their music, Yesterday is quietly ridiculous, but boasts a wholesome mass appeal. (Though unlike the Beatles, Yesterday does not reveal hitherto unforeseen genius.) The script screams of Curtis’s decidedly British humor, the kind of dry charisma that endeared to us characters like Hugh Grant in Love Actually and Bill Nighy in About Time. James and Patel are a charming pair, with the latter never letting his character slip into glory-hound douchebag territory. Even as he ostensibly chases fame and success, he’s always the toothless dork we met in the first few scenes, chuffed to be at the party and play a few songs while he’s there.

And with Jack Malik, the Yesterday team has done what seemed impossible and given us a South Asian everyman. Plenty of writers and actors have strived for this, but too often the result is a whitewashed, sanded-down character whose lack of engagement with his identity arguably dilutes the story’s authenticity. In Jack’s case, ethnicity doesn’t come up because it genuinely doesn’t have to. His parents (the fabulous Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar) sport the same English accent he does, which means their family has been in the U.K. for generations — and I’d argue that Mr. Malik taking an entire plate of tuna sandwiches at a gig is the most Indian dad thing of all.

That’s a bit of a stretch when it comes to plot points about the difficulty of selling Jack’s image (via constant negging delivered superbly by Kate McKinnon, who is having more fun than anyone in a movie with no discernible purpose besides fun). That the film suggests Jack’s name and skin tone would be non-issues in his career trajectory is… almost cute? Patel has the most riding on this movie that’s mostly a time-pass for its otherwise established cast, and the best thing Yesterday can yield is more roles for someone with his innate ability to sell something so bizarre.

Will Jack and Ellie ever figure it out??

Will Jack and Ellie ever figure it out??

Ultimately, Yesterday boils down to a classic love story, and not one with any real stakes (apart from a man named Gavin, who seems nice). Ellie loves Jack, Jack loves Ellie, they tell each other and then do nothing and then do something. It’s saccharine but not nearly as entertaining as constant ironic humor for an audience who knows the Beatles and will delight at every heavy-handed wink. That’s right — Yesterday literally turns the most popular band of all time into a massive inside joke, and it’s hilarious!

I did cry during Yesterday, due to some cocktail of the aforementioned reasons and at least one wild card that would probably be considered a spoiler. I also laughed – cackled, even – and had a lovely time at the movies. Yesterday is not trying to be anything other than what it promises: a gleeful ride through a wild premise with some feel-good music to keep you going along the way.

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