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Movie review: Musical love letter 'Yesterday' imagines a world without the Beatles

“YESTERDAY” — 3½ stars — Himesh Patel, Lily James, Sophia Di Martino, Kate McKinnon, James Corden, Ellise Chappell; PG-13 (suggestive content and language); in general release; running time: 116 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Removing the Fab Four from popular culture is a bit like imagining the NBA without Michael Jordan, or the auto industry without Henry Ford. Yet Danny Boyle’s heartfelt “Yesterday” attempts to imagine what the world would be like if the Beatles had never existed.

Himesh Patel as Jack Malik in “Yesterday.”
Himesh Patel as Jack Malik in “Yesterday.”
Jonathan Prime, Universal Pictures

In Boyle’s love letter to the Beatles and their fans, a mysterious power outage leaves the world in temporary darkness, and after the lights come back on, only a failed singer-songwriter seems to remember the band ever existed.

When we meet Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), he already seems to be at the end of a long, winding and disappointing road. Years of trying to break through as a musician have led to a series of empty public shows, and though they try to be supportive, even his loving parents would prefer he go back to teaching and hold a steady job.

About the only person who believes in Jack is his longtime friend and manager Ellie (Lily James). Ellie is easily the best thing going for him, and everyone — including the audience — assumes they are a couple, but sadly Jack stuck her in the friend zone long ago.

After an especially disappointing show, Jack is finally ready to abandon his hopes and dreams. Then after a spat with Ellie, the power goes out and Jack gets hit by a bus in the ensuing confusion. When he wakes up in the hospital minus a couple of front teeth, friends and family are there, supportive as always. But something is off: No one seems to know who the Beatles are.

As fate — or maybe the power company — grants Jack a precious opportunity, “Yesterday” surges forward to explore what happens when he weighs the ethics of his predicament and decides to re-compose all of the band’s hits from memory. Suddenly, artistic anonymity gives way to instant superstardom, with new friendships (including a kind-of friendly rivalry with Ed Sheeran) and new associations (including a cutthroat manager played by Kate McKinnon).

For Beatles fans, “Yesterday” is a gleeful ride full of witty in-jokes and references, and to keep things interesting, Jack soon finds that the Beatles aren’t the only piece of popular culture that suddenly vanished from the collective memory. But as the film goes along, it also starts to zero in on the relationship between Jack and Ellie, and “Yesterday” sets its sights on a romantic narrative to match the swoon of so many Fab Four songs.

Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) and Debra (Kate McKinnon) in "Yesterday.”
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) and Debra (Kate McKinnon) in "Yesterday.”
Suzanne Hanover, Universal Pictures

Boyle’s execution here is fantastic, but the excellent premise kind of writes itself into a corner late in the film, leaving only a sub-par finale to mar an overall enjoyable experience. James is great as Ellie, and Patel hits a nice note as an artist talented enough to be good, but anonymous enough to be dismissed by a cold world.

It might be genuinely difficult for non-fans to appreciate or grasp what is happening with a film so fully immersed in the lore of Beatlemania, and even casual fans will likely sense they are missing a lot of inside references.

For diehards, though, Boyle has captured the spirit of a beloved band and the shared joy fans have embraced for decades after the Beatles' comparatively short time together on the stage.

Rating explained: “Yesterday” is rated PG-13 for some profanity, mild sexual content and violence.