“Yesterday” starts off exactly how you know it will if you saw the trailer beforehand. In small-town Suffolk, England, late one night after deciding to give up on his dream of a music career, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus while on his bike. Simultaneously, the entire globe loses electrical power for 12 seconds. When the lights come on, the world has forgotten the Beatles.
Once he recognizes the world doesn’t remember the iconic ’60s pop band, Malik begins to perform and take credit for the Beatles’ musical genius. In a comical and endearing turn of events, Malik frustratedly attempts to debut “Let It Be” on an upright piano in his parents’ living room, starting and restarting one of the most iconic songs in the Beatles’ repository as his mom and dad continue to converse over its performance. After Ed Sheeran (as himself) notices Malik’s unbelievable songwriting talent and invites him onto Sheeran’s tour, however, Malik is projected quickly to world-level fame.
Chock-full of all your favorite Beatles jams, the movie follows Malik as he struggles with guilt for passing off the Beatles’ work as his own, yet wanting to get his favorite music back out into the world. Unsurprisingly, Malik is often asked to explain his lyrics and album titles, questions which he cannot answer. At one point, Sheeran pressures Malik into changing “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude,” and Malik is mocked ruthlessly by a marketing team for suggesting the album title “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Beneath cheeky characters and a fresh starting point, however, “Yesterday” also presents big questions — most noticeably, can we never again reach the Beatles’ level of musical talent? Pre-Beatles plagiarism, Malik’s own song-writing ability is laughably bad; when he slips in one of his own songs while recording Beatles’ tracks, it’s cut, showing that Malik’s lack of musical success is not merely lack of recognition.
Sheeran, too, is put in his place when Malik and he engage in a backstage competition to write the best song in 10 minutes, and Malik whips out “The Long and Winding Road.”
The movie starts from an absurd premise, but what ends up being less believable is not that the world forgot the Beatles, but how quickly it falls back in love with their music. Almost instantly, every song is a hit. Granted, Malik picks the most iconic tracks — perhaps because he remembers the lyrics to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” and not to “Eleanor Rigby” — but it seems unlikely that every song would rocket the charts so quickly, when the Beatles themselves performed together for five-ish years, and several years prior as solo artists, before the world began to catch on.
Despite entering into a totally different musical scene than the Beatles originally did — a scene in which rap, not big band is the dominant variety — Malik finds the world appreciates the 60s Brit pop icons almost as much as he does (though his parents take until near the end of the movie to come around). The world is not just ready, it’s hungry to fall in love with the Beatles, eight days a week — and to really love them, not just wear the band’s name on a cool, old T-shirt.
The star-studded cast of characters includes Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live) as Malik’s belligerent agent Deborah, Lily James (“Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”) as the best friend-turned-love interest, and even John Lennon (played by Robert Carlyle), who in the Beatles-less world of “Yesterday” has lived to be 80-something, unlike the real Lennon, who was tragically murdered by a deranged fan in 1980 at 40 years old.
“Yesterday” comes suddenly into the movie scene as both a light-hearted, feel-good trip down memory lane and a serious probe into modern music. Undoubtedly, the Beatles and the ensuing British Invasion were something special, and the movie asserts that. But maybe younger generations always circle back to the tracks that formed their parents; maybe a 2080 movie in which the world forgets Ed Sheeran will generate just as much interest.
Or maybe, every 60 years or so, we’ll just be falling in love with John, Paul, George, and Ringo all over again.