If you want to feel joy, head straight to “Yesterday.” It’s a heartfelt and humorous tale from Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (“Love, Actually”) about a struggling musician (Himesh Patel) who wakes up in an alternate reality where he’s the only person aware the Beatles ever existed. Gasp!
How high you get depends on your tolerance for sentimentality, but it’s almost a guarantee even the hardest of hearts will give into the movie’s many pleasures. Among them, Patel, who, in his leading-man debut, is the ideal choice to play Jack Malik, a down-on-his-luck bloke still living in Sussex with his parents and stocking shelves at the local Price Star. Patel, known in England for the BBC hit “EastEnders,” plays guitar and piano and is charmingly wry and funny when the script calls for it. Plus, when he sings the Beatles songs, it feels like they belong to him. No easy feat.
The story gets under way in earnest after Jack, after yet another night of playing to an empty room, is on the verge of scrapping his musical dreams. A freak bus accident and a mysterious global blackout ensue, thus providing Jack has the chance to pass off the vast Beatles catalogue as his own. Here comes the sun, indeed.
In one scene, Jack sings an impromptu “Yesterday” for his friends. Jaws drop. A flummoxed Jack doesn’t believe his mates have never heard of John, Paul, George and Ringo. They must be punking him. “Beatle what?” they ask. A Google search confirms it: The Beatles never existed. So Jack cashes in. His versions of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Let It Be,” “In My Life,” go viral and suddenly he’s on top of the world. Ed Sheeran (himself) is in Jack’s kitchen asking his new mate to open for him in Moscow, where Jack steals the show with a blazing performance of “Back in the U.S.S.R.” A money-hungry American agent played by SNL’s Kate McKinnon (as zany as ever) takes over Jack’s life, cleaning up his scruffy exterior with fitted suits and a shave. Suddenly Jack is the “Shakespeare of pop music.” But with instant fame comes complications. Jack is consumed with guilt over passing off the songs as his own, visualized in a cool dream sequence where the truth is exposed at a press conference.
Left in the wake of Jack’s worldwide ascent is his bestie, Ellie (the always-radiant Lily James from “Mamma Mia”). She’s been Jack’s loyal friend and manager since age 14 when he sang the Oasis hit “Wonderwall” in their school’s battle of the bands. A small quibble: Why would the Gallagher brothers write a song called “Wonderwall” if George Harrison was never known? Or for that matter, any song; given Oasis’ obsession with cribbing the Beatles’ sound? But I digress.
Everyone can see Ellie, the “maths” teacher with the fuzzy hair, is perfect for Jack, but neither she nor he has the courage to consummate the relationship.
The push-pull of Jack’s life feels so sweet. For 117 minutes “Yesterday” neutralizes our jaded souls, alternating between fits of laughter and bouts of genuinely earned tears. Then that’s always been the style of Curtis, who also wrote the screenplays for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” What he gave us in those movies he gives us here, even more so with Boyle behind the camera. The results are charming and hilarious, as “Yesterday” renews faith in the possibilities of love and edgy romantic comedy. The movie may lag a bit in its overcooked third act, but with Patel and James generating so much chemistry, “Yesterday” is just too magical to resist. At its core, it’s propelled by those glorious songs (“Eleanor Rigby,” “Hey Jude,” “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”) and a solid supporting cast that includes Jack’s parents (Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal) and his roadie (Joel Fry, hysterical). Usually, these high-concept films have no business succeeding. The gimmick eventually has to unravel; but here, it never does, proving a valentine to both the Beatles and to human connection. Indeed, love is all you need.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate Mckinnon.
(PG-13 for suggestive content and language.)