The setup is this: An unsuccessful musician, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel,) gets bonked on the head by a bus just as the world’s electrical grid goes dark for 12 seconds. When he wakes up in a hospital, he finds that he is the only one alive who remembers the Beatles. The group name doesn’t even show up in Google searches.
When he plays and sings Beatles tunes, his friends and relatives are charmed and compliment his songwriting skills. The more Beatles music he plays, the more his audiences grow. Ultimately he is enlisted by Ed Sheeran, a popular English musician playing himself, to be the opening act at a concert in Moscow. Jack’s performance of “Back in the USSR,” brings down the house and sets him on the path to superstardom.
Into the mix comes a top music agent, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnen,) who disparages Jack’s looks and has all the charm of, oh, Cruella De Vil. She offers him the “great and glorious poisoned chalice of money and fame,” which he accepts. Then it’s off to Los Angeles where, with the help of Sheeran, Debra and a huge promotion team plan Jack’s musical release, the greatest of all time.
This takes Jack away from his Sussex home and his former manager, Ellie (Lily James), who has known Jack all his life and always has liked him for himself.
Jack is a tad uncomfortable pretending he composed all the Beatles tunes, but this isn’t explored. Instead, Jack has to decide who he really is and what matters to him. And so it goes.
Danny Boyle, who directed the two edgy Trainspotting films, is the director. Perhaps unfortunately, the screenwriter is Richard Curtis, best known for 2003’s “Love Actually,” a cloying mess of a film that I had forgotten, happily, until I read the credits for “Yesterday.”
One way the film might have made Jack’s transformation more interesting would have been to project a non-Beatles universe forward. If the Beatles had been less dominant in music, would Motown have been the defining music of the period, or would it have been another decade of folk music followed immediately by disco? Would contemporary people be humming “Gimme Shelter” and “Satisfaction” instead of “Yesterday” and “Let It Be?” Would Bob Dylan or Elvis have taken rock more seriously?
There have been other stories in which characters are transported into different realities, and at least one in which the means of transport is a bonk on the head.
That would be “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” a Mark Twain satire published in 1889. Post-bonk, a mechanic named Hank Morgan wakes up in 6th century England, where he tries to apply engineering principles and American values that don’t go over so well with the magicians and Catholic leaders of the moment. I’m not sure whether I have read this book or just have read about it, but I’m pretty sure nobody reads it now. It’s more than 400 pages — too long for current audiences.