How you feel about “Yesterday” will probably depend upon how proprietary you feel about the Beatles. If you’re of the opinion that the Fab Four were basically a classic rock band — OK, the classic rock band — with a lot of very good songs, this romantic trifle from director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and co-writer Richard Curtis (“Love Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) may go down like a nice, warm bowl of comfort spaghetti.
If, on the other hand, the Beatles, their music, their personalities, and their times feel inextricably entwined with your DNA, part of the very framework of your reality — that sounds heavy, but I speak for a lot of us — “Yesterday” may seem like a cinematic Savoy Truffle: a sugary concoction that tastes sweet but can end only in regret and cavities.
The dramatic conceit is a cute one, and it works for about half the movie. What if the Beatles never existed except in the memories of one man? The film’s hero, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), is an engaging but only moderately talented singer-songwriter in England — Suffolk, the sticks — who’s about to call it quits and get a real job after years of busking and pubs. One night Earth glitches, slips into an alternate timeline (don’t ask how or why, since the movie doesn’t), and Jack slowly comes to realize that the most important pop quartet of the 20th century never happened.
That astonishing, endlessly rewarding eight-year body of work — it’s all Jack’s to treasure, play, exploit. Will he give in to the temptation to pass these unknown classics off as his? Will he rise to massive fame on the strength of the songs’ inarguable rightness? Will he stand to lose the love of his friend/manager Ellie (Lily James), the only person who has stood by him all these years even though he’s too dense to notice? Have you seen a movie before?
Director Boyle is known for an over-reliance on cinematic tricks but here he keeps the visual razzle-dazzle to a minimum. “Yesterday” is much more of a Richard Curtis movie, which means that there will be A) one character’s frenzied race to a public embarkation point to proclaim his love, B) a tendency toward glib, enjoyable wisecracking, C) mildly loony secondary characters, and D) a climax of maximum public humiliation in which the hero confesses all to a crowd that includes the lady-love he is currently mortifying. Earlier in his career, Curtis was content to do this at small church weddings. In “Yesterday,” he finally goes global.
Patel is funny and warm and relatable; James is winsome to the point where it makes little sense she’d be so ignored for so long. Joel Fry is on hand as a bumbling, loudmouth best friend/roadie, and Kate McKinnon of “SNL” finally gets a movie role worthy of her fearsome talents as Jack’s gleefully cruel shark of a Hollywood manager. (She has no filter, and that’s a superpower in LA.) What Ed Sheeran is doing here is anyone’s guess, amiably cast as the Major Pop Star who takes Jack under his wing only to realize the magnitude of his supposed talent. Sources tell me that Sheeran actually is a major pop star, but that doesn’t keep me from wondering if he’s simply the one they could get.
“Yesterday” gets off some good broadsides about the idiocies of the modern music industry, and it glances off an interesting idea: Songs that were allowed to bloom more or less naturally 50 years ago would be marketed, meddled with, and hyped to death today. Would it change what “Hey Jude” means if it were re-titled “Hey Dude”?
You know the answer to that as well as I, and so do the filmmakers. But their other calculations seem off the mark. “Back in the U.S.S.R” would probably not go over like gangbusters at a 2019 Moscow concert, as the movie has it. More to the point, “Yesterday” presents the songs as undeniable no matter who sings them, including Jack’s one-man solo act, when the greatness of the work is at least half in the performances: The harmonies, the production, the sound of John Lennon’s edgy insistence chafing against Paul McCartney’s cheerful craftsmanship (and vice versa). They’re timeless in part because you can’t take them out of their time.
Such things are not to be replicated, and “Yesterday” doesn’t try. It’s content to keep things light and predictable, with the result that one of the richest song catalogs known to man is here to prop up an increasingly formulaic and far-fetched love story. “Yesterday” makes less sense the longer it lasts, albeit with some good bits along the way; Jack’s meeting with the only two other people on the planet who remember the Beatles plays out in satisfyingly unexpected ways.
But there’s another meeting, late in the film, that may hit you differently, depending upon your tolerance for late, lamented artists being used for sentimentalized brownie points. You may find it sweet, one of my screening colleagues called it “obscene,” and I only wonder how the artist in question, were he alive, would respond to the diminishing of his famously contentious persona to the level of a rom-com Yoda. I don’t want to spoil the party, but someone should have known better.
Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by Richard Curtis and Jack Barth. Starring Himesh Patel, Lily James, Joel Fry, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon. At Boston area theaters. 116 minutes. PG-13 (suggestive content and language)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.