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They’re a real nowhere band – ‘Yesterday’

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There’s something to be said for a story whose narrative can be explained with elevator-pitch brevity. While intricate plotting can be an engaging, thrilling part of a book or film, it can also be nice to enjoy the simplicity of getting the essence of the thing in a single sentence.

“Yesterday” – directed by Danny Boyle and written by Richard Curtis – is a magnificent example of the latter. “Singer-songwriter wakes up as the only person who remembers The Beatles.” That’s it. That’s what this movie is about. Simple.

Of course, that simplicity is deceptive. It’s a great hook, but what next? How do you take your admittedly-fascinating idea and build it into a story? It’s a dilemma that Boyle and Curtis struggle with a little more than one might have hoped, but the film still hangs together well thanks to Boyle’s strong-as-ever visual stylings, a top-notch lead performance and – of course – the music.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, TV’s “Damned”) is a struggling singer-songwriter living in the town of Suffolk, England. Despite his best efforts, he can’t seem to make any sort of inroads as a performer, and after one final disappointing gig, he tells his best friend/manager Ellie (Lily James, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”) that he’s going to give up the dream for good.

But while riding his bike home that night, a mysterious phenomenon strikes. All over the world, for 12 seconds, the power goes out. At that exact moment, Jack is hit by a bus. He wakes up in the hospital, badly bruised and short a couple of teeth.

But there’s more missing than just his teeth.

When Jack strums out the song “Yesterday” on a newly-gifted guitar, his friends are all flabbergasted – when did he write such an incredible song? They express mild confusion when Jack, sure he’s being made fun of, mentions The Beatles – they’ve never heard of them.

A frantic round of Googling reveals that somehow, someway, Jack Malik now lives in a world where The Beatles never existed. He is the only person on Earth who knows their songs, and while he gets a slow start on bringing them back into the world, things rapidly pick up steam.

Jack winds up getting discovered by Ed Sheeran (playing himself), who invites Jack to open for him on a few dates after seeing him on a local chat show and listening to his bulk-retailer giveaway CD. But it all blows wide open when, during the first show – in Moscow – Jack busts out “Back in the USSR,” a song that literally no one had ever heard before that very moment.

Jack’s songwriting acumen draws the attention of Sheeran’s manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon, “The Spy Who Dumped Me”), who whisks him away to Los Angeles so that he can make an album that will almost certainly turn him into the world’s biggest rock star. However, the morality of what he’s doing begins to weigh on Jack – they aren’t his songs, after all.

And in the middle of all of it is Ellie. The reality is that Jack and Ellie are drifting apart, the importance and immediacy of their relationship fading – and the question of just what they each want that relationship to be. Ultimately, Jack is going to face a choice … and it’s going to be a choice that changes not just his life, but pop music itself.

“Yesterday” was always going to struggle with its own hype. The first trailers generated a rare level of buzz, thanks to people captivated by the idea of the film. But that’s the thing with great ideas – they’re not that easy to execute. And while what we got was a lovely little movie, we had in some ways built our own expectations a bit too high.

And yet, I really liked this movie. While I’m as loyal a proponent for blockbuster cinema as anyone, it was lovely to shift gears and quietly enjoy a music-driven film with a sweet love story and some sci-fi edges.

Note that I didn’t use the term “small.” Because while this movie doesn’t have the bombast of some of its CGI-laden brethren, what it does have is the music of The Beatles. And it is in the moments where Boyle and company really lean into those songs that the film shines brightest, no matter if we’re looking at intimate guitar-strumming or sold-out arena rocking.

There are also some surprisingly funny moments, including a running gag where Jack keeps discovering random things that no longer exist in his new … world? Universe? Dimension? The lack of explanation with regards to what exactly happened is frankly OK with me. This sort of magical realism doesn’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny, so don’t start pulling the threads – there’s a lot going on here that doesn’t make a ton of sense if you think about it too hard.

The love story is fine, though it underwhelms at times. The logic of the dynamic doesn’t always make a ton of sense. Nor do all of the choices. That said, there are plenty of people out there who act illogically and make poor decisions while navigating romance, so who’s to say?

Patel is excellent as Jack, brimming with an energy that swings from poignant to goofy pretty smoothly. He does good work with the music as well, although some of the songs do better when shifted to guy-with-an-acoustic-guitar than others. He’s also charismatic enough to pull off the rock star vibe, which isn’t easy. James is good as always, but she’s let down by the script in some ways. Still, she gamely gives it her all. Sheeran is weirdly good as an exaggerated version of himself, while McKinnon is clearly going for it in a way that doesn’t always work, but lands most of the time.

“Yesterday” has a few issues, but they’re minor ones in the grand scheme of things. Overall, you’ve got the aesthetic vision of Danny Boyle directed at a magnetic lead in Himesh Patel with a soundtrack riddled with some of the greatest pop songs of all time. In terms of a pure good time, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better time at the movies this summer.

[4 out of 5]

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