Imagine (sorry) that you wake up after an accident to discover not that you’ve lost your memory, but that everyone else in the world has. You’re the only person to recall a few mundane items that have mysteriously vanished from everyone else’s experience, along with one transcendent item: the Beatles and their music. Jack Malik, a musician for whom the term “struggling” overstates his status, suddenly becomes the sole steward for arguably the most valuable assets in popular music history. Can he achieve his life’s biggest ambitions — and what might it cost?

Yesterday tackles a number of big issues in a charming, affecting, and effective film that could have gone wrong in any number of ways. What is the inherent value of art? Does celebrity enhance or degrade it? Who really owns it in the end, and where does it come from in the first place? Most importantly — how do we define success? Himesh Patel’s Jack has to confront all of these questions while he just struggles to comprehend the forces he sets in motion, and there isn’t a moment along the way where the audience doesn’t root for him to get the correct answers — before it’s too late.

Director Danny Boyle and Patel work some magic with Jack, allowing us to connect with his essential humble nature and the in-over-his-head panic that ensues — and not just with the music. Lily James gives a lovely performance as his overlooked friend and manager Ellie, who is the one person who actually gets associated with a Beatles song in the film. (Jack’s struggles to master it are a nice parallel to it as well.) Joel Fry provides some comic relief at the heavier moments as Jack’s ne’er-do-well friend/roadie Rocky, and Ed Sheeran provides some more fun as himself in what is significantly more than a cameo.

In another age, and perhaps even in another point on the calendar in this year, Yesterday would be a film that could easily wait for a home-video release. It’s so well done, however, and so captivating that it would be a shame not to catch it in the theater. Coming as it does in a season where comic-book stories and Roman-numeraled films dominate the choices, Yesterday provides adults with a choice that will challenge their intellects rather than insult or ignore them. There are no heroes in this film, nor even superstars — even Sheeran is down to earth here — but real people trying to make sense of their place in the world.

On the Hot Air scaleYesterday gets a qualified 5:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Why qualified? If you’re not a fan of Beatles songs, this film might leave you a bit cold. In that case, you might consider it more of a 3. Yesterday is rated PG-13, but it’s tough to recall anything objectionable in it. I’d feel comfortable taking my 10-year-old younger granddaughter to see it, except that I’m not sure she’d remain interested in it for too long.

As a bonus, here are some thoughts on two films I watched while on vacation via airplane cinema (previously written on my Facebook page):

  • Destroyer – I hadn’t even heard about this one until I saw it in the airplane lineup, but it’s definitely worth a watch. Nicole Kidman delivers the performance of a lifetime as a burnt-out detective trying to clean up her own mess in her professional and private lives, and who’s barely hanging on. This one has some legitimate surprises, but it’s got a lot of realistic violence in it, too. This might be Kidman’s best work since To Die For.
  • Bad Times at the El Royale – I liked this one more than I thought I would. It’s violent, but it’s stylishly done, and it keeps you guessing a bit until almost the very end. (The final reveal was a little too pat.) Cynthia Erivo steals the film as Darlene Sweet, but the whole cast is good.

Catch both of these on home video, but they are both rated R for good reasons.