At what point do you give up on a dream, one that has sustained you through dead end jobs, living at home with your parents, a rolling tumbleweed of a romantic life and a general sense of early promise unfulfilled?
That’s the great dilemma facing Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who hails from Clacton-on-Sea, a town in Essex where falling into the expected pattern of things is the norm.
He has plugged away since a junior high school performance of “Wonderwall” by Oasis at a Battle of the Bands contest, believing that if he attends enough open mic nights and sings at enough pubs, that one day his musical ability will be recognised.
The thing is, you know it won’t; no one, bar his close friend and part-time manager, maths school teacher Ellie (Lily James) really believes in his talent, with even his parents and friends routinely pouring indirect cold water via halfhearted lack of interest, and Jack’s songs are, to put it bluntly, not that great.
They’re not embarrassed-on-reality-TV-singing-competition bad, but even though Jack has a great voice and a pleasantly dreamy way about him, his talent is just too middling to keep up with his ever-burning ambition.
So, one day Jack, having been humiliated by no one, bar some toddlers and old people too confused or tired to move their camping seats, turning up to his gig at Latitude Festival in Sussex, gives it all up, shelving his dream and accepting that sometimes hoping springing eternal simply isn’t enough.
Which, is when, narratively speaking, everything gets really, really weird.
Well, weird in a warm and cosy, sweet-and-sparkly Richard Curtis (Love Actually, About Time) fantasy kind of way, which is, frankly, one of the best things that could happen to us right now.
Not that Jack is enamoured of the timeline change, which after a 12 second-long event which sees every last light in the world go dark at once, sees him careen into a bus, lose his front teeth and his guitar and wake up in hospital to a world which doesn’t remember The Beatles.
Yep, you know, Paul, John, Ringo and George, four singer-songwriters from Liverpool who you may, just may, have heard of.
Only in Yesterday, no one remembers them at all, save for Jack (and two other people whose admission that they remember too adds some real genuine warmth and light to a scene you think is going to go in a whole other direction).
Once he’s got over his shock, which involves a huge amount of confounded Googling and WTFs, it doesn’t our boy long to realise that here’s his chance to strike the big time since no one knows The Beatles catalogue, which he must summon from the depth of his memory, but him.
It’s a fun if disconcerting premise – who wouldn’t be freaked out if the world around them changed in a fairly major way but largely remained the same (there are some other changes too but they are best left unrevealed since there’s a great deal of fun to be had with the unveiling of their absence – which Curtis, and director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Sunshine) possibly don’t use to its full potential but which serves it purpose which is to set the cats among Jack’s existential pigeons.
And to give a great dilemma to solve – does he choose the lure of fame and fortune, a tantalising shot at bigtime musical stardom engineered by rapacious music manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon in brilliantly hilarious form), or does he finally, and belatedly (10 years belatedly) declare his undying love for Ellie, which he doesn’t even realise is there until it stands a real chance of being taken from him?
The trailer aside, which posited the film as some kind of dream fulfilled only to have fame kill all its attractive attributes excursion, Yesterday is, in fact, a great, big, old, happy romantic comedy (rom-com) with an ending you can see, and quite happily, a mile off.
It doesn’t always hit its rom-com marks perfectly, a little unsure at times if it’s fully resident in that genre or occupying the dark side of fame one instead, but overall Yesterday is a reassuringly warm and fuzzy delight, replete with idiosyncratic characters, loopy, witty oneliners and some meta self-awareness that comes into own when Jack is, to his knowledge at that point anyway, all along in a big, brave new world.
While it bears all the hallmarks of a Curtis screenplay, that is not necessarily a bad thing.
For all the lighter than air frippery of a Curtis-penned film, and it is definitely present and accounted for, there is a deep, sustained awareness of what makes people act a certain way, the insecurities, ambitions, hopes and dreams that power all of us to some degree or another, percolating throughout, imbuing Yesterday with far more emotional resonance than you might reasonably expect.
Not that it’s some Freudian/Jungian descent into the deepest, darkness recesses of humanity’s collective soul, but you can see in Jack and Ellie, and even their comedically fated to divebomb through life friend Rocky (Joel Fry) some authentic threads of hope lost and rekindled, of wanting to make the most of an unexpected good fortune only to have it turn sour in your mouth and be bamboozled by how to respond to what is, by any estimation, a weird set of circumstances.
While Yesterday, which features Ed Sheeran in fine, amusing if a tad petulant form, is at heart a rom-com par excellence, with all the trappings, tropes and cliches that implies, it works beautifully, mostly balancing its twin storytelling imperatives to surprisingly moving effect.
Once you adjust to the fact that the film is more rom-com than fate gone wrong flick, which trust me is not the most wrenching of transitions, you slip into the easy, fun rhythm of a film that celebrates the fact that while some things may disappear from our lives, other things remain, and if we’re really paying attention, they’re the things we need the most.
It’s no surprise what those important things are in Yesterday since it is a rom-com and not a withering expose of life as a rock star, but go with the flow, sink into the reassuring sense that some real-life things, in a Curtis film at least, can be fixed in the most magical and fantastical and yet emotionally-grounded of ways, and enjoy watching the world change before you, and yet stay, in ways that will make your heart feel a whole lot better, just as should always have been.