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Play like a genius

Himesh Patel in Yesterday (Universal Studios)

Movie

Play like a genius

In Yesterday, unlikely events bring celebrity status to an unremarkable musician

It may be a little early to trot out the old “feel-good movie of the year” designation, but it’s going to be tough to beat director Danny Boyle’s Yesterday

Boyle is perhaps best known for Slumdog Millionaire. Here, veteran romantic comedy screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually) has given him an equally optimistic script to work with.

After a worldwide power outage, struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) awakens in the hospital to discover he’s the only one who can remember the Beatles. “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” … no one’s ever heard of those songs before. At least, not until Jack begins playing them to the delight of his long-suffering childhood friend and manager, Ellie—the only one who’s never doubted he has genius hiding somewhere inside. But what begins in pure celebration of music soon spirals into full-blown artistic theft.

At the peak (one hopes) of our current “cancel culture,” Yesterday is almost revolutionary in its kindness toward its main characters. Without giving too much away, we all know it’s not OK for Jack to claim work that isn’t his. And, in other hands, one scene that deals with his duplicity would surely end in a moment of pharisaical condemnation. Instead, Boyle resolves it with such surprising grace and generosity, you want to weep with gratitude. 

What criticism has been lobbed at Yesterday is generally due to its lack of darkness, because Jack doesn’t spiral into problems generally associated with stardom. But partying and drug use would be beside the point. Jack’s main problem is imposter syndrome on steroids. He needs no other issue to grapple with, especially as it allows the film to get at greater and more worthwhile themes.

Yesterday acts as a subtle rebuke to other musical biopics of late, such as Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, that subtly suggest only lives of artistic geniuses are worthy of our admiration. Only people who create something the whole world holds dear have really lived to the utmost. Poppycock, says Yesterday. Jack’s appeal is that he is average. He has average songwriting ability, average stage presence. His only above-average quality is his love for music and his joy in sharing that love with others.

Pop songs tap into our emotions in ways at once individual and collective. The story recognizes this without idolizing the individuals who possess the rare ability to write them well. Instead of bowing at the feet of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, it stands back in wonder at a world where such creation and shared experience is possible.

Though the language earns it a PG-13 rating, Yesterday is also one of the most chaste romantic comedies in recent memory, even as it trades on obstacles to love that feel especially modern.

I read some reviews that argued that, as Ellie, Lily James is so luminous and lovable, it requires too much suspension of disbelief for Jack not to be already in love with her. To that I can only say those reviewers must not know many millennial women. Being disregarded by millennial men focused on goals that don’t include serious relationships isn’t just plausible, it’s epidemic.

Try to think of the last big-budget romantic comedy in which an awkward “morning after” scene didn’t play a major role. Here, Ellie instead understands instinctively early on that a one-night stand with Jack will cheapen their relationship. When a later scene implies (but doesn’t show) sex outside of wedlock, the film nonetheless ties it to marriage and family, and upholds both as blessings.

Do I need to tell you how Jack and Ellie’s story ends? I won’t. It’s enough to say that it celebrates the grace of life. And with a film like that, you know we should be glad.