Ed Sheeran's self-effacing performance is one of the true highlights of Yesterday. Director Danny Boyle's film centers on a struggling musician named Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who discovers he's the only person alive who remembers that The Beatles and their music ever existed. Malik goes on to record the Fab Four's hits and passes himself off as their sole author, which turns him into a global pop star. And yet, Malik's success wouldn't have been possible without Ed Sheeran, who ends up playing second fiddle to Malik.
In Yesterday, Malik's performance of "In My Life" on a British chat show captures Sheeran's attention. The bespeckled recording artist is so taken by The Beatles' songs that Ed contacts Jack himself and even appears at his home to offer him a spot on his tour as his opening act in Moscow, which is Jack's big break. In doing so, Sheeran endures being inadvertently mocked by Jack's father Jed (Sanjeev Bhaskar), who points out that Ed "looks like Ed Sheeran" and doesn't believe he's the real deal. But once Jack joins Ed on tour, his performances of Beatles classics wins him a recording contract from Sheeran's own label. By riding on the coattails of The Beatles, Jack's stardom quickly eclipses Sheeran's.
Along with being one of the biggest recording artists in the world in real life, Ed Sheeran is no stranger to acting but he often appears in film and TV as himself. He portrayed himself in his 2014 acting debut on the New Zealand soap opera Shortland Street and he later appeared as himself in 2016's Bridget Jones's Baby. Sheeran has properly played actual characters, however; he portrayed Sir Cormac in The Bastard Executioner and, in Game of Thrones season 7, Sheeran infamously made a cameo as a singing Lannister soldier who encounters Arya Stark (Maisie Williams), an appearance that garnered both the pop star and the series an unfair amount of criticism.
In Yesterday, Sheeran exhibits both charm and modesty and his performance is endearingly self-deprecating. After watching in awe as Malik wowed the audience by performing "Back in the USSR" in Russia, Ed tries to assert his own talent and goads Jack into a song-writing contest. The rules were that each singer would write and perform an original song on the spot but, while Ed followed the rules, Jack cheated and performed The Beatles "The Long and Winding Road" - a song clearly superior to the one Ed just wrote. Sheeran's visible disappointment and acceptance that he lost to a better songwriter were quite moving; little did he know that he was really defeated by the song's true author, Paul McCartney.
Still, Sheeran graciously accepted his defeat and went onto support Jack's burgeoning career. And yet, Ed was no fool and suspected something was off about Jack. Listening to Malik's feeble explanation of the backstory behind "Hey Jude", Ed clearly tells Jack "I don't believe you". Sheeran also humorously suggests that "Hey Jude" would be better and more relatable if it were retitled "Hey Dude" - making the classic song worse against Jack's protests. Still, Sheeran kept his reservations about Jack to himself and he later invites Malik on stage in the film's climatic Wembley Stadium performance, yielding the spotlight to Jack once again.
The ironic thing about Ed Sheeran agreeing to play a version of himself who gets overshadowed by Jack Malik is that Sheeran wasn't the first choice for the part. Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis originally intended for Coldplay frontman Chris Martin to play Jack's musical mentor, but Martin passed. However, Sheeran made the role his own and fused some real-life ironies into it: the way Ed picked Malik out of the blue to tour with him echoes how in 2012, Taylor Swift contacted Sheeran, asked him to co-write the song "Everything Has Changed" with her, and invited him to be the opening act for Swift's The Red Tour in 2013.
For Ed Sheeran in Yesterday, art not only imitated life but he self-deprecatingly mocks himself with the film's message that The Beatles' decades-old music is superior to Ed Sheeran's modern pop. And yet, by enabling Jack Malik's (and The Beatles') stars to shine, Ed Sheeran ironically also got to play the best version of himself.
- Yesterday (2019) release date: Jun 28, 2019