Dir: Danny Boyle. Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, and Ed Sheeran. 12A cert, 116 mins
What would a world without The Beatles look like? Would pop music be anything close to the cultural and artistic force it is today? Would the counterculture movement of the 1960s have thrived without one of its biggest icons? Would we think of The Catcher in the Rye differently if it hadn’t been used as the inspiration for John Lennon’s murder? And, most pressingly, who would have written “Live and Let Die”, arguably the greatest of all the Bond themes?
None of these questions and more are answered in Yesterday, a surprising collaboration between two British behemoths, screenwriter Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle. You’d think a meeting between romcom royalty and a man of such kinetic artistic vision would result in something genuinely experimental. But Yesterday is little more than a standard Curtis outing with a bumped up number of jaunty Dutch angles. It’s a chocolate egg of a film: sweet and satisfying enough to distract you from the fact it’s completely hollow inside.
Our luckless, thoroughly Curtis-esque protagonist here is Jack Malik (EastEnders’ Himesh Patel), whose dreams of musical stardom have both started and ended in his hometown of Clacton-on-Sea, where he spends his days performing to empty seafronts and disinterested pub-goers. His only support is Ellie (Lily James), his best friend, who we soon discover is also madly (and unrequitedly) in love with him.
As Jack decides to pack up his guitar for good, he tells Ellie: “We’re in a little story and it ends now.” But it doesn’t. During a global blackout that lasts 12 seconds in total, Jack is hit by a bus. What at first seems like terrible luck actually puts him in the position of being one of the most important men in the world: somehow, the blackout created a reality where The Beatles never existed. And Jack is the only one who remembers them. When he plays “Yesterday” for his friends, they all react with shock, wondering how Jack managed to whip up something so emotionally profound.
Yet, Yesterday proposes that we might not be as equipped to recognise pure genius as we’d like to think, especially when it’s not been pre-packaged as such by a corporate giant. A friend’s reaction to “Yesterday” is a casual, “Well, it’s not Coldplay”, while Jack’s parents (Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar) can’t even sit still long enough to be the first people ever to hear “Let It Be”, an experience Jack describes as akin to “if Da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa in front of your bloody eyes”. In fact, his rise to fame only catches on after he’s noticed by Ed Sheeran, who here is positioned as the Salieri to Jack’s plagiarist Mozart. Although Sheeran’s role in the film is actually far less intrusive and irritating than you’d expect from an A-list pop star cameo, and he’s game for taking potshots at his own image, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to argue that it’s normal and acceptable to position him as second best to The Beatles.
Sheeran’s prestige is just one of a long list of assertions that we’re simply meant to accept without questioning. We’re meant to agree that the world would be at a great loss without the music of The Beatles, despite the fact that both the musical landscape and society at large are shown to be pretty much unchanged without their presence – outside of a throwaway joke about Oasis having never existed. Add to that, the history of The Beatles themselves is whitewashed in a way that may prove controversial. Here, they are simply merry music-makers behind some of the greatest ever songs – and that does a disservice to the band, whatever your opinion of them may be.
But, really, Yesterday isn’t about the cultural impact of The Beatles. The idea that they’ve ceased to exist is merely the high-concept, sci-fi tinged packaging the film comes in, not unlike Curtis’s own About Time, about a man who uses time travel to get the woman of his dreams. And, to his credit, Curtis’s usual trademarks still have their charm here: someone stands in a doorway in the pouring rain; there’s a last-minute rush to stop someone’s travel plans, and Jack is surrounded by friends who are as supportive as they are cruel in their jibes.
The film is frequently sharp and funny in its observations, too, while Boyle directs the musical performances with enough gleeful energy to keep the momentum up. Patel and James, meanwhile, make for bubbly, delightful romantic leads and are surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Even Saturday Night Live’s Kate McKinnon shows up as Jack’s conniving American manager, channelling her trademark swaggering weirdness into a walking metaphor of US corporate culture, in contrast to her client’s own humdrum British origins.
In the end, while it’s easy to have expected more from the creative convergence of Curtis and Boyle, there’s no denying that they’ve created an instant crowd-pleaser.
Yesterday is released in UK cinemas on 28 June
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