Award for lamest idea of the year will almost certainly go to screenwriter Richard Curtis, who has imagined a world where Beatles songs no longer exist in “Yesterday.” Curtis’ twee, nudging, corny comedic voice is very much the main sensibility here, far more so than anything offered by director Danny Boyle or anyone else involved.
Singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, “EastEnders”) has been playing on boardwalks, street corners and small cafes for around 10 years with little success. His friends and his manager Ellie (Lily James) come to see him and cheer him on, and they like it when he plays his “summer song,” but nobody else does.
Ellie thought he would be a star after she heard him sing Oasis’ “Wonderwall” at a school talent contest, but Jack is very discouraged. Ellie tells him that he will be successful one day and that stranger things have happened. He asks, “Like what?” and she replies, “Benedict Cumberbatch becoming a sex symbol.” Most of Curtis’ writing is like that: meant to elicit cozy chuckles.
While Jack is riding his bike one day, electricity goes out all over the world for 12 seconds, the earth seems to turn backwards, and the ending chords of “A Day in the Life” play on the soundtrack in a distorted way. Jack is hit by a bus, and when he wakes up in the hospital, he is missing two teeth in front. He makes a Beatles reference, asking Ellie if she will still need him and feed him when he’s 64, and she doesn’t know what he is talking about.
Jack sings “Yesterday” to his friends, and they think it’s one of his songs; they are impressed but noncommittal. “It’s one of the greatest songs ever written!” Jack cries, and a blonde friend tells him, “It’s not Coldplay.” Jack goes home and googles The Beatles and can’t find them, and he can’t find Oasis either, but he does find The Rolling Stones. Similarly, Coke doesn’t exist anymore but Pepsi does.
Jack starts singing Beatles songs in his café gigs, and nobody much cares, either because they aren’t really listening or because it’s him singing them in 2019 and not the four Beatles singing them in 1962. This is the area of “Yesterday,” where Curtis and Boyle might have explored some interesting ideas about art and presentation and being in the right place at the right time, but they take the easy way out instead and make the easy jokes.
Singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who plays himself here, takes Jack on tour as an opening act after hearing the Beatles songs he is singing. Jack is taken up by a comically ruthless talent manager played by Kate McKinnon in a sharp-edged, dangerous style that is both welcome and also out of place in this very soft movie. She records most of the Beatles songs with Jack, and when he tries to slip in his own “summer song” she shoots it down quickly and brutally.
Jack remembers most of the words of the Beatles songs, but he has predictable trouble remembering the correct words in the correct order of “Eleanor Rigby” and “Penny Lane,” and so he leaves these for last. Curtis never considers the possibility that these Beatles songs might not instantly be acclaimed today as sung by Jack, and he also doesn’t get that an adult male singing “I Saw Her Standing There” now would be attacked in today’s climate and “cancelled” for singing about an under-aged girl.
Boyle has asked that writers not give away a scene that happens towards the end of “Yesterday,” but it is a very bad idea embedded within Curtis’ already bad idea. It does not involve either of the still-living Beatles — Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr — who mercifully do not appear here. Just imagine the worst and most sentimental idea not involving them and you’ll have a rough idea of what occurs.
If you’re going to make a film with a plot like “Yesterday,” the least you can do is probe it somewhat and push it as far as it will go. But Curtis and Boyle offer up pretty much what you would expect given this premise, which basically amounts to Patel doing passable karaoke versions of these famous songs and very little else.