Jack Malik is a struggling singer/songwriter who keeps body and soul together by working as a warehouse shelf-stacker. His manager believes in him, and so do his mates. The trouble is, they’re the only ones who turn up at his gigs to cheer him on.
He’s on the brink of tossing it all in and going back to teaching but that would mean giving up his dream of being a professional musician.
Then one day there’s a 12-second worldwide power blackout and in the darkness he gets hit by a bus and thrown off his bike. He recovers to find himself in a world where The Beatles never existed. He seems to be the only person on Earth who’s even heard of them.
This of course presents a rare opportunity for someone with his aspirations. He revives his career by performing Beatles songs and sure enough, soon he’s being hailed as the latest pop music sensation, and fame and fortune loom.
Comparisons with Groundhog Day are inevitable. The inexplicable event that overturns the natural order is never explained and doesn’t need to be. The point of it is to give our flawed Everyman hero the chance to gain wisdom and learn what’s important in life: love, respect, kindness, humility…all the timeless virtues.
Naturally there are obstacles to be overcome: He’s got to remember all the words, for a start, because they sure as hell aren’t on Google. He’s got ‘Let it be’ and ‘Yesterday’, but others are trickier, and there’s some lovely cinematic business with his efforts to remember the words of ‘Eleanor Rigby’.
The getting of wisdom stuff is nicely handled and there is some sharply funny commentary on the garishness and greed of the commercial music biz, especially as practiced in Los Angeles. Will wealth and fame corrupt Jack? Can he continue to live a lie? Should he be cashing in on someone else’s talent?
Like Groundhog Day, Yesterday is a romcom, but I fear it falls short of becoming a classic of the genre like its predecessor. Groundhog Day got the balance just right between the rom and the com, but in Yesterday the rom is way overdone and unconvincing.
Lily James (of Downton Abbey and Guernsey Potato Peel Pie…fame) plays the pretty young manager who’s loved him from the start if only he could see it. But why doesn’t he see it? This is never explained, and it needs to be! Any modern girl would take this lack of sexual response from someone who’s single and available to mean he’s gay. Then when she does announce her love – at a most inconvenient time incidentally, right when he’s really tied up with the music – he STILL doesn’t do or say anything to suggest that he loves her too. Nevertheless we know they’ll end up together – they always do – and we even have the obligatory cliched race against the clock to retrieve the beloved before she gets on a train out of town.
Am I being too harsh? I have to admit I find Lily James annoying as an actress, with her lisp and her supposedly cute facial tics, but I found the romcom contrivances in this movie even more annoying. It would have been better if Ellie and Jack were already together and their love was tested by some glamorous music industry femme fatale representing the vanity and shallowness of that world. There is such a character in the story, but she’s older than Jack and not played as a rival for Ellie, which is a wasted opportunity, I think.
Newcomer Himesh Patel plays Jack, and he does remarkably well singing the Beatles repertoire. He was apparently chosen for his musical ability, and it was a good choice.
There are some surprises and some nice jokes to do with the topsy-turvy situation: some other pop culture phenomena have been wiped by the blackout – no spoilers – and Jack may not be the only one exempted from its effects.
Some minor questions are left unanswered which should have been, for the sake of plot coherence. Why is Jack working in the warehouse at all, for instance? If he’s a qualified teacher, wouldn’t he have more flexibility to work on his musical career than if he’s working rigid shifts in a warehouse? And if he fails, at least he’s in a profession with a future.
And also, why was it necessary for Jack to lose two teeth in the accident? It seems to serve no plot purpose – it doesn’t even generate any gags – and he soon gets them fixed. Perhaps Patel really did lose two teeth during shooting. It certainly looks like it!