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Frustrating ‘Yesterday’ Fantasy Wastes World-Without-Beatles Premise


Heavy spoilers ahead.

I wanted to see only one thing about this annoyingly overlong and aggravatingly stupid rom-com, based on its cloyingly perky trailer. “Yesterday’s” what-if premise is that struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) suddenly becomes the only person in the world who knows The Beatles ever existed. He subsequently performs all of the missing moptops’ songs that he can remember as if they are his own, achieving worldwide fame and acclaim.

Although Jack initially tries telling disbelieving friends the songs aren’t his, it’s painfully unrealistic that someone so otherwise wide-eyed and guilelessly sincere would claim all of the credit when he realizes he can get away with it. It’s easier to believe that a huge fan like Jack never would stop insisting that his musical heroes wrote the songs, even if people thought he was an eccentrically delusional nutjob. (In today’s entertainment industry, that might even be a plus.)

The most crucial element to get right in a fantasy like this is a satisfying ending—specifically, what sort of cosmic comeuppance the bogus Beatle will suffer when his deception is discovered. In the film’s trailer, talk-show host James Corden surprises the flabbergasted Fab Four faker live on camera by saying he has two surprise guests who claim the songs are theirs. We see a floor-level shot of four feet (two of them shoeless, as Paul McCartney’s were on “Abbey Road”) walking onstage, then the scene cuts to black.

Call me a naively optimistic sucker, but I was willing to endure most of the movie’s running time just to see how the tale would turn at that point. That’s partly because I still give “Yesterday” screenwriter Richard Curtis the benefit of the doubt when I see his name on anything, considering that he co-created the unforgettable “Mr. Bean” and the brilliant Brit-com series “Blackadder” several decades ago. Curtis also wrote the enjoyable “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill” last century.

More recently, however, Curtis has been responsible for 2003’s sickeningly sappy “Love Actually,” 2009’s achingly unfunny “Pirate Radio,” and 2013’s aggravatingly simpleminded “About Time.” Still, one hopes for the best.

So three-quarters into “Yesterday,” when the imposter finally is set to be confronted, I was willing to put aside the fact that the rest of the movie had been relentlessly unamusing and thoroughly unconvincing. Although Patel (in his first feature role) is likable enough as Jack the pretender, and Lily James (“Downton Abbey”) is sweetly adorable as Jack’s hometown supporter Ellie, their friendzone will-they-or-won’t-they relationship is agonizingly predictable.

Jack’s irritating parents (Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal) and manchild-doofus roadie (Joel Fry) are tedious bad-sitcom clichés. Pop star Ed Sheeran plays himself without being interesting about it. And “Saturday Night Live’s” Kate McKinnon, whose appeal has always eluded me, obnoxiously mugs as Jack’s avaricious American agent. Director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) hasn’t helmed a project this shockingly shoddy since 1997’s “A Life Less Ordinary.”

That means the movie was in need of a remarkably clever third-act twist to redeem itself, but as Ellie tells Jack, “Miracles happen.” Instead—and what occurs is so brazenly insulting to the audience that I resent even having to insert a spoiler alert here—that previewed “meet The Beatles” moment has no payoff. The scene ends before we even see the faces of the two men who walk onstage, because Jack wakes up. That’s right, wakes up. The talk show scene is only a dream. A DREAM!

At that point, I realized I not only disliked but genuinely despised this awful, awful movie. Then it actually managed to get worse. (Ellie was right: Miracles do happen!) Explaining how requires one final spoiler alert, and a quite major one, so look away if you still feel any foolish desire to buy a ticket to this tripe.

A middle-aged man and woman show up backstage after Jack gives a rooftop concert to tell him that they, too, remember The Beatles. Jack reasonably assumes this means the jig is up. Yet instead of being angry and outraged that Jack would claim undeserved credit so shamelessly, they express their heartfelt gratitude that he is keeping the band’s songs alive. Huh? At the very least, you’d think they would guilt Jack into donating any publishing royalties to charity, but no. And then one of them hands him John Lennon’s address.

What’s more offensive than the questionable taste of including an un-assassinated and elderly Lennon as a cast member is the screenplay’s criminally lazy lack of logic. Wouldn’t Jack, as someone who genuinely loves The Beatles, have put forth more of an effort by then to find out if John, Paul, George, and Ringo were alive? The only attempt we see him make is a Google search for “The Beatles” (which brings up info about the bugs), and “John Paul George Ringo” with no last names (which turns up Pope John Paul II). And that’s it.

Bear in mind that Jack later goes to the considerable trouble of making a special trip from Los Angeles to Liverpool just to see the places that inspired “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” in order to jog his memory about the lyrics of those songs. Are we really expected to believe he wouldn’t at least try hunting down the city’s four most famous sons, through birth records and such, or even by just asking around?

Also, Jack never asks Lennon anything about music, including whether he tried writing songs, wanted to be a musician, or ever met Paul, Ringo, or George. Wouldn’t those be the very first questions out of his mouth? And wouldn’t he be conscientious enough to attempt to sign over all relevant royalties?

Finally, once Jack realizes that Lennon exists in this Beatles-free reality, wouldn’t that immediately send him in search of Paul, Ringo, and a possibly-still-living George to make similar amends? Not in this movie!

It’s almost beside the point to mention how embarrassingly schlocky the rom-com elements are here, but a single example will suffice. The morning after Jack and Ellie come this close to having sex, Jack frantically rushes across town to the train station to catch Ellie before she leaves him for London. Haven’t seen that kind of thing before, right?

Jack also never bothers simply calling Ellie when he discovers she has left the hotel, which would have cleared things up right away. Instead, he doesn’t try ringing her until he is standing in the station watching a train pull away.

It’s also odd that Jack never performs even one song from any of the individual Beatles’ solo albums. He gets all excited about recalling “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” but never bothers reviving “Imagine,” “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “My Sweet Lord,” or “Back Off Boogaloo”? Okay, maybe not that last one.