Imagine waking up in a world where everything is the same, with one exception:
Nobody has ever heard of the Beatles or any of their songs.
As fortune would have it, you’re a talented singer/songwriter, but you’ve been struggling for 10 years and have never come close to breaking through.
Would you be tempted to perform “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “Let it Be” et al., to increasingly bigger audiences, and going along on a Magical Mystery Tour catapulting you to overnight stardom?
You can worry about the consequences down the road, which is almost always the case with anyone that finds themselves in the middle of a parallel-universe movie.
With that promising set-up, a screenplay from the crown prince of sentimental storytelling Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Love, Actually”) and directed by the electrically talented Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “28 Days Later”), the jukebox musical drama/comedy “Yesterday” was atop the charts of my most anticipated movies of the Summer of 2019.
Alas, after a promising first hour, “Yesterday” plunks one wrong note after another (including one particularly sour interlude), and eventually collapses under the weight of impossible expectations.
It paints itself into a corner from which there is no escape and had me thinking things like, “Maybe this would have worked better as a novel or a Broadway musical,” and, “This is weird but I’m reminded of the Nicolas Cage holiday movie ‘The Family Man’ from 2000”—because that, too, had a fantastic premise but rode off the rails in the third act.
The likable Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a former schoolteacher and part-time big box store employee who lives in Clacton-on-Sea in eastern England. He’s been struggling as a singer/songwriter for the better part of a decade and has just decided to hang it up when BOOM!
He’s hit by a bus during a freak, global power outage that lasts all of 12 seconds.
When Jack wakes up, he’s battered and bruised and missing two front teeth but is otherwise OK, much to the relief of his best friend/manager/roadie/tireless supporter, Ellie.
A word about Ellie. She is played by the irresistible Lily James, and we constantly wonder how Jack hasn’t fallen in love with this girl from the moment she was smitten as he played “Wonderwall” at a student talent show when they were little kids.
Talk about being in a coma! Come on, Jack.
So. Jack quickly discovers nobody has ever heard of the Beatles. (When he Googles “Beatles,” he gets Beetles. When he Googles “John Paul George Ringo,” the first result is Pope John Paul.)
In rapid fashion, Jack is discovered by Ed Sheeran (Ed Sheeran is quite good playing Ed Sheeran), who is blown away by Jack’s songwriting abilities and calls Jack “the Mozart to his Salieri.” (All due respect to Ed Sheeran, but he might be overselling his place in pop music history there.)
Kate McKinnon scores some laughs as a cartoonishly over-the-top record agent who swoops in, gobbles up Jack and turns him into the hottest commodity the music world has ever seen — even though there are some doubts about proposed record titles such as “The White Album” (a marketing guru says that would create a diversity issue), and songs such as “Hey Jude,” which is re-christened “Hey Dude,” because who the heck is Jude?
All good stuff, well-played musically and for laughs and for dramatic tension. Jack’s renditions of Beatles classics are delivered in rapid-fire, scattershot fashion, as if he’s shooting pop hits out of a T-shirt cannon. In this world, the simplest, two-minute, early 1960s songs from the Beatles canon are released alongside the complex masterpieces from later in the decade.
In less than subtle fashion, “Here Comes the Sun” plays when Jack first visits L.A., and “Carry That Weight” kicks in when Jack starts to feel the mounting, um, weight, on his shoulders as he shoots to stardom while harboring a gigantic secret: THESE ARE NOT HIS SONGS!
Now and then, Jack learns the Beatles weren’t the only part of our world erased by that 12-second glitch. It’s one thing to find out a certain soda never existed — but when Jack finds out the source of literally tens of millions of deaths was never a thing, you’d think he’d do more than shrug about it. Poetic license aside, we begin to wonder why this guy won’t put down the guitar for a second and spend a few days figuring out exactly what else is missing from this world, and how he can use that information for the greater good — instead of fixating on becoming a superstar.
Ah, but such is the path taken by many a traveler through these “Twilight Zone”-type stories.
Eventually, though, “Yesterday” makes some really strange and questionable choices, especially in a late, pivotal scene surely designed to touch our hearts but coming across (at least to this reviewer) as shameless and manipulative and, to use a technical term, icky.
And that’s when the Long and Winding Road reaches an absolute dead end.