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Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis' Yesterday is flaky fun

YESTERDAY
directed by Danny Boyle

A comedy set in a a world with no memory of the Fab Four is lightweight but enjoyable.

There’s a point in Yesterday where Ed Sheeran, the very one, is teasing Jack Malik about the new tune he’s just performed in his Moscow support slot, Back in the U.S.S.R. “You weren’t even born when it was named that,” the ginger superstar tells his understudy backstage about the place’s previous moniker.

What Sheeran doesn’t know is that, as the result of a global glitch in the time-space continuum and a well-timed concussion, Jack (Himesh Patel) is now the only one who knows Beatles songs – he wakes up to a world where the band and all they meant never existed.

So, armed with his memories of the Lennon-McCartney songbook, the struggling Suffolk singer-songwriter fast becomes pop’s Next Big Thing. Even if he can’t remember all of Eleanor Rigby. Even if it means he has to abandon Ellie (Lily James), a friend since childhood who has attempted to manage his music career.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

That Moscow encounter is an incidental scene, but it’s also a telling moment. Had Yesterday taken the idea of a Beatles-challenged planet much more seriously, it might still be the USSR today – there have been books and films about how The Beatles’ influence permeated the Iron Curtain and helped tear it down. And U.S.S.R is also a good song to include in a movie about passing off musical ideas, given the debt it owes to Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys.

As intriguing a premise as Yesterday is, the film only goes so far with it. A Fab Four-free world extends to a joke that 1990s Beatles derivatives Oasis could never exist, either. There is one startling result of this imagined pop-culture black hole in a later scene. It’s the what-if taken to a logical conclusion and best left unspoilt. But it’s an irreverent touch in a movie that otherwise plays it safe with its concept.

Mostly, Yesterday is an enjoyable, energetic, abundantly tuneful if flaky romcom and lightweight music-biz satire (care of Kate McKinnon as Jack’s predatory new manager, Debra). It does require an extra suspension of disbelief to accept that Jack bashing out I Saw Her Standing There is his, er, ticket to ride to the big time in 2019. And in treating The Beatles’ songs as one big jukebox, not a progression from mop-top rock’n’roll to psychedelic experimentation and songwriter introspection, there’s a point being missed.

There’s some storytelling sag in its second half and signs of editing patch-ups – a scene in the trailer, in which Jack instantly “writes” Something on a talkshow and makes a fellow guest fall for him, isn’t in the film. Elsewhere, the unrequited Jack-Ellie love story struggles to give the romcom much rom.

Written by Richard Curtis, the film bears many of his hallmarks – romances between famous and unfamous people and between women who look like movie stars and blokes who don’t; extravagant declarations of love with many onlookers. It’s given energetic treatment by director Danny Boyle, whose last time doing something this crowd-pleasing was the opening of the London Olympics, which would have been an hour shorter had Hey Jude not existed. There is a little too much of Sheeran, even if it’s his best role since his Shortland Street cameo.

As Jack, Patel, a longtime EastEnder, has an Indian heritage that goes unremarked upon. Still, it’s a nice touch for a Beatles movie, even if his repertoire avoids any of George Harrison’s sitar numbers. Patel is great, comedically and musically, and he makes Jack’s one-man hard day’s night terrific fun. He’ll be a tough act to follow in any sequel (Yesterday 2: Tomorrow Never Knows, perhaps?) or stage version.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

This article was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.