GREG'S GRADE: B+
From the unlikely source of director Danny Boyle ("Trainspotting," "Slumdog Millionaire"), "Yesterday" is a great big love story. In fact, it's two love stories — one on a global scale as music fans rediscover the music of The Beatles and the other a more intimate one between lifelong friends who really ought to be more.
Set largely in England, Jack (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter on the verge of hanging up his guitar for good and returning to his abandoned teaching career. Ellie (Lily James) is a teacher, and she's also Jack's biggest fan/best friend/manager/roadie. She believes in him, even if no one else does, and Jack has been too wrapped up in pursuing his dreams to realize she's been in love with him for half their lives.
Then one night, when Jack has reached his lowest point after a disastrous festival performance, a curious thing happens. It's like something out of the most benign "Twilight Zone" episode ever written. During a worldwide, 12-second blackout, Jack is hit by a bus. He loses a couple teeth and spends a few days in the hospital, but makes a full recovery. Reunited with his friends, he breaks in a new guitar Ellie has given him by playing the Beatles classic "Yesterday." His audience is awestruck by what they've heard, and blank faces greet him when Jack says it's a Beatles song.
A subsequent Google search confirms it: Somehow, The Beatles' existence — among other random things — has been erased from the world, with Jack seemingly the only one with any knowledge of them. So he seizes the opportunity, reconstructing all their biggest hits from memory — "Eleanor Rigby" is a particularly tough one to recall — and claiming them as his own.
Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis ("Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill") assume those songs would be as popular in 2019 as they were more than half a century ago, and a worldwide fervor grows as Jacks starts releasing them. They get the attention of Ed Sheeran, playing himself, who takes Jack on tour as a support act and eventually bows down to his superior songwriting talent.
(Sheeran entertains in a substantial supporting role. Playing a humbled and decidedly uncool version of himself, his one creative contribution to Jack is suggesting he change the title to "Hey Dude," because "Jude" is too old-fashioned.)
The build-up to Jack's album happens under the watch of his new American manager (Kate McKinnon), who replaces Ellie and brings him to Los Angeles for recording and an image makeover. It's not until he's lost her that Jack grasps the depth of his feelings for Ellie, and the growing distance — physically and emotionally — between them, along with his own guilty conscience, steals away any joy he might find from his success.
The movie has a lot of fun with its premise — Jack's ill-fated attempt to play "Let It Be" for his parents is a highlight — and also has Joel Fry, as Jack's bumbling roadie, to turn to for consistent laughs. The soundtrack, of course, contains many of the most famous songs ever written, and they help create the film's emotional backbone. The dramatic material is heavier than might be expected, but it works because Patel and James are such a winning pair. We know Jack and Ellie belong together, and clichéd though it may be, it's easy to root for them to overcome the obstacles that stand in their way.
In the end, the message of "Yesterday" is simple: All you need is love.
Rated PG-13 for suggestive content and language. 116 minutes.
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