Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, an alumnus of the never-ending British soap opera EastEnders) is a going-nowhere singer-songwriter in an English resort town. One day some friends give him a new guitar as a present. To try it out he plays one of his favorite songs: "Yesterday." His friends love it, and assume Jack wrote it. Jack is astounded: the Beatles wrote it, of course. It's a famously great song, he says. The friends snicker a bit. "Well, it's not Coldplay," one of them says.
Yesterday imagines a world in which the Beatles don't exist. Oh, they did exist, but that was before a mysterious space-time hiccup in which lights briefly went out all over the world – an event that Jack missed because he'd been hit by a bus and was unconscious at the time. Now he seems to be the only person who still remembers the fab Liverpudlians and their glorious music. Imagine the possibilities.
It's best not to interrogate this setup too closely. Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral) are frankly confecting a sweet little fable here, and they would probably sigh and roll their eyes at any attempted nitpicking.
Jack is a good guy, but he's unable to resist the tremendous, but of course ethically indefensible, opportunity that's been laid before him. He's tentative at first. Trying out "Let It Be" on a living room piano for his parents, he discovers that even the Beatles' most celebrated songs don't command instant respect these days. His suburban mom and dad (Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar) are an awful audience, talking through his performance, fiddling with their phones, answering the doorbell. But Jack's "manager," Ellie Appleton (Lily James, of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), who has been his biggest/only fan since they were kids, is clearly prepared to support him to the end. (Jack, obviously an idiot, has never picked up on Ellie's winsome love vibe—which is actually the hardest part of this story to swallow.)
With Ellie enthusing and a young producer named Gavin (Alexander Arnold) arranging studio time, Jack records a song called "I Saw Her Standing There." It's pretty good. Next he plays something called "In My Life" on a local TV show, and shortly thereafter Ed Sheeran—the Ed Sheeran, by God—shows up at his door offering Jack a slot on his upcoming European tour. This might not have been a great idea, because out on the road Jack's storming rendition of "Back in the USSR" proves a hard act to follow. But Sheeran accepts this stoically: "I was always told someone would come along who'd be better than me," he says.
Over the course of nearly two hours, the movie sometimes feels like it's overrunning its premise; and when Kate McKinnon shows up as an uber-cynical record-company rep, her sour presence, so often bracing, seems out of place in such a sunny film. But the love story between Patel and James, while shamelessly manipulative, is also irresistible. And Patel, who does all his own singing, also does these famous songs justice (his rendition of "Help!," taken at punk-rock velocity, is a worthy footnote to the original track). Props must also be paid to Sheeran, who has a warm comic touch and is the very soul of self-deprecation. (His suggestion that Jack change the name of his song "Hey Jude" to "Hey Dude" is very nicely tossed off).
Yesterday is a movie that seeks only to make you feel warm and marshmallowy inside, and maybe love the Beatles a little bit more. Resistance is pointless.