Say that George, John, Paul and Ringo never united, and that an entire catalog of some of the best-known songs of all time never existed.
That would be just like “Yesterday,” which is the name of an entertaining fantasy based on the conceit of a world without the Beatles. Driven by two top talents, director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis, the tale posits a 12-second blackout in which all memory of the Fab Four is wiped out … almost.
Only one struggling musician, played nicely by Himesh Patel, remembers the Beatles and their tunes – and decides to “introduce” and claim the songs as his own. That results in the character ultimately having an ethical crisis as the public marvels at his creative genius, which of course is really the genius of others. It also yields some moments of inspired humor, as when Ed Sheeran (playing himself) suggests that a certain song would be better with the title “Hey Dude.”
The thing about “Yesterday” is not to oversell it. It’s a pleasant diversion, helped also by good acting turns by Lily James and “Saturday Night Live’s” Kate McKinnon as the hero’s manager and agent, plus a funny cameo by James Corden. However, the humor of Curtis works best when one doesn’t approach it with huge expectations (though he readily admits that the story idea here was someone else’s and he was brought in to script it).
If you think back to “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and even “Notting Hill“ and “Love Actually,” the Curtis touches evolved organically. And often, they were small moments that sometimes can be noticed only upon multiple viewings.
Chances are very good that it will be the same with “Yesterday” as time goes on; its concept of “no Beatles” is quite a bit to grasp initially, and that probably will be the overriding journey for most moviegoers the first time around. However, the smaller strokes – particularly aspects of the relationship between Patel and James – seem likely to be recognized more upon second and third (and beyond) screenings.
That’s the quiet magic of many Curtis-written movies. As nice as it is, “Yesterday” doesn’t change the world … but at the same time, it does change the world figuratively, thanks to the device of erasing one of its most legendary quartets.