Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures
What if the Beatles never existed? It’s an interesting thought experiment, and the narrative backbone for the new Richard Curtis–penned, Danny Boyle–directed film Yesterday, in which a Y2K-like global power outage erases some sizable chunks of pop-culture history, mainly the fact that the Fab Four was ever a thing. This predicament leaves our struggling-musician protagonist, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who was struck unconscious by a bus during the blackout, as seemingly the only person aware of the iconic band.
As a fan, Jack is despondent, and he makes it his mission to remember and document as many songs as possible so as not to deprive the world of such greatness. But when L.A. comes calling for the small-town Englishman—in the form of a hilariously brash record exec played by Kate McKinnon—the stock clerk by day and open-mic regular by night is presented with a moral dilemma: to live out his rock-star dreams with an unclaimed vault of classics, or to remain unknown, integrity intact. Intentions aside, good songs travel fast, and soon enough, Jack is a world-class scam artist, which only widens a gap between himself and his manager (Lily James), who reveals a repressed crush on the eve of his first tour.
While Boyle’s Trainspotting pulsed with on-trend Brit pop and a handful of expertly timed oldies, Yesterday flips the script, dropping a bomb of boomer classics into our contemporary pop climate. Younger viewers might get musty, “back in my day…” vibes from the overall tone, which pokes fun at major-label marketing meetings and songwriting by committee, but it’s hard not to chuckle when Ed Sheeran, who stars in the film as himself, offers some advice to Jack—“Song title: ‘Hey, Dude.’ ” Newcomer Patel, 28, who’s of Indian descent, more than does the Beatles’ vast catalog justice,giving the songs new life while also chipping away at the default whiteness of rock worship. “Jack was not written with any specific ethnicity in mind. I was just the right person for the role,” Patel says. “The significance of my ethnicity is almost in its insignificance within the story.” Known mostly for playing Tamwar on the British soap EastEnders, Patel is now gearing up for his own breakout moment. “It’s a whole new thing,” he says. “I’m trying to not let it spiral out of control like it does for Jack.”
The film’s ambitious concept demands that the audience give in to chaos theory, which might be difficult for some armchair musicologists. For instance, sure, Oasis wouldn’t exist if the Beatles were erased, but why does Coldplay get to stay, or for that matter, Sheeran? And any soda historians in the house might take issue with the fact that Coca-Cola, introduced in 1886, does not exist in Yesterday’s Beatles-free world, unless, of course, Coke was the crushed butterfly that thwarted the British Invasion. In any event, those who find humor in such cornball-dad-joke hypotheses will appreciate the film’s feel-good plot, as well as Jack’s sincere attempt to teach the world to sing Beatles songs in perfect harmony.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue of ELLE.