directed by Danny Boyle
A comedy set in a a world with no memory of the Fab Four is lightweight but enjoyable.
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.
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.
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This article was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.