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'Yesterday' review: World without The Beatles is a whimsical work of fan fiction

Ellie (Lily James), left, and Jack Malik (Himesh

Ellie (Lily James), left, and Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) in" Yesterday," directed by Danny Boyle, in theaters on June 28. Credit: Universal Pictures/Jonathan Prime

PLOT A struggling musician discovers he is the only person who remembers the Beatles.

CAST Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran

RATED PG-13 (some adult talk)

LENGTH 1:56

BOTTOM LINE A whimsical work of fan fiction, if not the deepest dive into rock history.

"Yesterday," Danny Boyle's music-themed comedy about a struggling musician, Jack Malik, who wakes up to find that The Beatles have been erased from history, is one of those movies that will divide audiences into two kinds of people. 

First, there are the casual music fans who will accept the premise as a fanciful delight. They'll enjoy the lively renditions of Beatles classics by Jack (a serviceable Himesh Patel) and savor the unspoken attraction between him and his scrappy manager, Ellie (Lily James). These viewers will get a kick out of seeing pop balladeer Ed Sheeran play himself (rather well, too) and Kate McKinnon as a calculating record executive who holds "the poison chalice of money and fame." It's a classic tale of pop stardom versus the girl you love, set to the greatest songs ever written — what's not to like? 

Then there are the amateur rock historians, like myself, who will begin grumbling as soon as The Beatles vanish in a Y2K-style power outage (set to the orchestral buildup of "A Day in the Life"). This kind of person will lean over and whisper that if The Beatles hadn't released "Rubber Soul" in 1965, then The Beach Boys wouldn't have responded with "Pet Sounds" (1966), which in turn inspired "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1967). Are we also wiping out The Who, The Kinks and just about every other band of the past 50-odd years? Even beyond music: Without The Beatles, what happens to long hair, hippie couture, Eastern mysticism, an entire counterculture?

This kind of person is not who you want to bring to "Yesterday."  

Then again, this kind of person made the movie. Writer Richard Curtis ("Love, Actually") is reportedly a formidable Beatleologist, and he already paid fond tribute to rock history with 2009's "Pirate Radio." Boyle, a product of the post-punk era, is responsible for 1996's alt-culture landmark "Trainspotting." These two know their stuff, though perhaps only to a point. "Yesterday" seems unaware that streaming platforms exist; Jack's grand plan to release a double-disc set seems a decidedly 20th century idea. "Yesterday" is touchingly convinced that, in a market dominated by hip-hop, R&B and pop, a young rocker could still conquer the world with "All You Need Is Love." 

Some of us may have wanted a profound thought-exercise about The Beatles, but Curtis and Boyle were probably right to sell their movie to the masses. Today, even the world's greatest rock band may be in danger of fading. At least "Yesterday" keeps them alive and fresh in our memories. 

FOUR MORE

"Yesterday" joins a shortlist of fictional films about the Beatles. Here are four examples:

I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) Robert Zemeckis' directorial debut, executive produced by Steven Spielberg, is a teen comedy set against the day the Beatles appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964. The film was a flop but earned strong reviews from critics; it's a minor cult favorite today. With Nancy Allen.

Backbeat (1994) During the Beatles' early days in Hamburg, Germany, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) meets photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee) and considers quitting the band. Sutcliffe chose to pursue a painting career but died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962; you can see him on the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," far left, third from the top.

Across the Universe (2007) Julie Taymor's jukebox musical uses the Beatles' music as a backdrop for a wide range of events during the 1960s. An eclectic cast (Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Salma Hayek, Bono) bravely sang the tunes, but reviews were middling and the movie fizzled at the box office.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007) In a rock comedy that still separates casual listeners from deeply-informed rock nerds, the Beatles are played — during a hallucinatory sequence — by Jason Schwartzman (Ringo Starr), Jack Black (Paul McCartney), Paul Rudd (John Lennon) and Justin Long (George Harrison). — RAFER GUZMAN

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