** SPOILERS **
Danny Boyle's Yesterday posits an alternate reality where The Beatles never existed, which turns out to be both great and terrible news for Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). Mostly terrible, really. Jack, a struggling musician living in Clacton-on-Sea, UK, is run over by a bus during a global blackout that lasted for 12 seconds. When Jack comes to, he soon realizes that no one understands the Beatles references he drops, nor do his friends recognize the song "Yesterday" when he plays it for them. Panicked Google searches soon reveal the stunning truth: somehow, the blackout wiped The Beatles from history (among other random things like Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and Harry Potter).
From this wacky high concept, Boyle and his screenwriter Richard Curtis hang a sweet, awkward, but frothy story of a man who is nothing particularly special seizing the opportunity to pretend that he is the sole author of some of the greatest rock songs ever. At first, Jack performs and records the Beatles' music just to preserve them but soon, the magic of the Beatles' hits lands him TV spots, which leads to Ed Sheeran himself showing up at Jack's door to invite him on tour. Poor Ed is exceedingly jealous of this nobody who somehow writes and performs songs that are instantly legendary, and Jack is quickly scooped up by an L.A.-based record label. Jack's record deal comes with a new, ball-busting manager (Kate McKinnon), but this means Jack has to leave behind his previous manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who has unrequitedly loved and supported Jack since they were classmates together in 2004.
While Yesterday is an unabashed lovefest for the Beatles and their music, the film is clever enough to recognize and poke fun at the fact that those songs are from the 1960s and come off as dated in 2019. On one hand, "Let It Be", "Yesterday", "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", etc. remain as powerful as ever, but they're from an entirely different era, which is what makes them refreshing juxtaposed against today's heavily sampled and remixed pop music. And yet, some of the film's best jokes come at the expense of the Beatles' eccentricities: the album titles Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band makes no sense and The White Album comes off as racist. Ed Sheeran also insists "Hey Jude" would be better and more contemporary if it was changed to "Hey Dude". McKinnon also hilarously (and correctly) sizes Jack up as "not attractive, out of shape" i.e. not a rock star. However, the novelty of one man supposedly writing and performing so many incredible songs in such a short period of time rockets Jack Malik to global stardom, but the guilt of being a complete fraud rips his soul apart, as does his realization that he also loves Ellie, who can't join him on this journey and has moved on romantically.
Boyle and Curtis wisely don't explain the hows and whys of the new reality, nor do they go into detail about the whereabouts of the surviving Beatles, and this lets them drop a huge surprise in the third act when the last Beatle anyone expected to see turns out to be alive. This leads Jack to finally listen to his conscience and tell the truth about being a fraud but, fortunately, he's not a fraud about loving Ellie. While James and Patel share an easy chemistry and she is at maximum Lily James-level charm, but Yesterday itself isn't Danny Boyle at his Danny Boyle-iest - the director only fleetingly dips into his bag of distinct cinematic wizardry. Rather, Boyle lets the actors and the music of the Beatles carry the load, and it all fuses into a lovely climactic montage of Jack and Ellie's life happy life together set to "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da ". While Yesterday isn't quite all it could have been, it packs enough irreverence, joy, wit, heart, and music that you recognize its deficiencies but just let it be.