Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a struggling British singer-songwriter who's just given up on his career aspirations when he is struck by a bus one night in England. As it turns out, his near-death experience occurred right as the entire planet's power blacked out for twelve seconds. When Jack comes to, a few days later, he finds that the blackout has derailed him, or the planet, into an alternate universe in which nearly everything is the same as before – except that the Beatles never existed. Apparently, only Jack and Jack alone remembers the Fab Four's vast repertoire.
Although he's depicted as a decent person, Jack's first impulse is not to track down the now supposedly non-famous John, Paul, George or Ringo to see if they recognize their own material, but to blithely pass off the Beatles' catalogue as his own. And although Yesterday takes place in the present day, when tastes have decidedly changed since the 1960s, the world goes crazy for Jack and "his" compositions, because the songs are just so damn great.
Yesterday's high concept is packed with potential. What are the moral quandaries of ripping off other people's work, when no one would know it wasn't your own? How much of the public's love for the Beatles stems from their charisma, or the time and place they were created? What happens if some of those classic songs don't work anymore? What if someone else slipped into the new universe from the old one, and also knew the songs? Yesterday's screenplay by Richard Curtis (with story credit shared by Curtis and Jack Barth) touches on most of these intriguing questions – but only just. Unfortunately, Curtis, who also penned Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral and so forth, can't escape his rom-com trappings, and too much of Yesterday's focus is on Jack's relationship with his friend Ellie (Lily James, slightly deglamorized in a curly brunette wig). You see, the two have long harbored an unspoken love for each other, and Jack must now choose between superstardom and a good woman, because apparently he can't have both. This old "fame or love?" cliche doesn't need a parallel universe fantasy to hold it up, and Yesterday doesn't need this old cliche either.
I still recommend the film, not only because it's a cute date movie (director Danny Boyle is in full-on Slumdog Millionaire populist mode) but also because, as a writer, I can be inspired by seeing something that has a brilliant idea but takes it in the wrong direction. You can't help but ask yourself, "What would I do with this concept?" With Ed Sheeran in a supporting role as himself, Yesterday might have been a cynical story about oneupmanship, a timely drama about creative ownership, or even a thoughtful commentary on race, corporate control, the passing of time, you name it. Instead, it's a sweet little love story about two goofy kids named Jack and Ellie, with the music of the Beatles ultimately serving as mere backdrop.