Yesterday is a magical feel-good fairy tale for adults written by Richard Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle.
World Without Youby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Does Yesterday ever develop into a film that’s more than its breathtaking fantasy premise? As you’ll probably know by now, it’s set in a world where the Beatles, the most famous pop group ever, had never existed. And where it’s said that the world would have been worse off as a result. The joke, or the thrill, is people hearing classic Lennon-McCartney compositions freshly for the first time – something that could never happen when they’ve part of our lives for years. But apart from the joke that, if the Beatles hadn’t existed, Oasis wouldn’t have either, Richard Curtis’s and Danny Boyle‘s world in Yesterday doesn’t actually seem much different from today’s – it has the same issues, the same problems.
Yesterday‘s conceit is that struggling, pretty average musician/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) from Lowestoft wakes up one day to find he’s the only person in the entire world who remembers the Beatles. That’s because he was unconscious during a gigantic electrical storm that blacked out everything in Britain for a few seconds and seemingly wiped everyone’s memory of certain things. When he thereafter sings ‘Yesterday’, probably one of the greatest and best-known songs ever written, to a group of his friends, they react as if they’ve never heard it before. They’re even a bit sceptical – it’s quite good but not as good as Coldplay. He tries out ‘Let it Be’ on his parents (Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar) but keeps getting interrupted after the first couple of lines so they’re unimpressed.
When Jack eventually realises what has happened, he rather shamefacedly furthers his career by making all the Beatles songs he can remember his own. Audiences everywhere are wowed. Jack becomes a global sensation and mega-star by performing these old Beatles hits as if they’re newly written by him. Most of these songs are classics now but whether some of them would have dated in the years since they were first written and how they might go down in the present day is not really addressed – they all get the same rapturous reception.
All mention of the Beatles has disappeared from the internet as well as people’s memories so he can’t Google the lyrics to their songs. He has to recreate them all from memory and there’s a running gag of him trying to piece together the lyrics of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, which he can’t quite call to mind accurately.
Another running gag is Ed Sheeran (another Suffolk boy) appearing as himself, being a jolly good sport, sending himself up as the big star who launches Jack’s career, only to realise that he’s the Salieri to Jack’s Mozart.
You’d imagine that a film with writer Curtis and director Boyle might be a collaboration of incompatible opposites. Maybe, but there’s no sign of any artistic differences, it’s a typical Curtis rom-com, though higher concept than usual. In fact, Yesterday follows the formula of Curtis’s Notting Hill – but in reverse. There’s the modest, unassuming hero rather like Hugh Grant (who becomes the (Julia Roberts) celebrity this time around) with a supportive group of friends, the wacky best friend (Joel Fry in the Rhys Ifans role) and who in rom-com fashion is initially blind to the gorgeousness of his platonic schoolfriend/manager Ellie (Lily James), who is plainly in love with him, as everyone apart from him can see.
It’s easy to be superficially snarky about Yesterday‘s sugary-ness and plot discrepancies. And though the premise genuinely seems strikingly original and intriguing, in fact it was actually prefigured by Nicholas Lyndhurst as his character of time-travelling Gary Sparrow in an episode of the ’90s sitcom Goodnight, Sweetheart. But, though the film is a predictable, though undeniably very enjoyable, one-trick pony, it has lots of nice little touches and is genuinely great, feel-good entertainment. And did John, Paul, George and Ringo ever exist? And if so, what happened to them in a world without the Beatles? Go watch Yesterday and find out. You know you want to.
Yesterday screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and is released on 28 June 2019 in the UK.