Richard Curtis can no doubt add Yesterday to his impressive list of screenplays that have touched a huge nerve with audiences. No matter how irritating some might find the saccharine sentimentality of Love, Actually or the upper-class indulgences in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the movies are watched over and over, year in, year out.
In Yesterday, (co-credited with Jack Barth for “Story by”), Curtis has explored a fascinating premise – that of a struggling young musician who one day wakes up to a world where The Beatles never existed. The mechanics of how that happens involves Jack Malik (long-time Eastenders star, Himesh Patel) being hit by a bus at exactly the same time the whole planet has a brief power blackout.
Okay, so it’s a great idea for a story, but a significant problem for some viewers (well, this viewer) is that it’s just so hard to believe it’s possible. I’m happy to go along with any sort of fanciful premise if it abides by its own logic, but this one is so specific and narrow that it just brings up too many questions – ones which aren’t answered satisfactorily. Despite that, if you just sit back and go for the ride, it’s a hugely enjoyable film. Well, how can it not be when it’s brimming with Beatles classics?
Jack discovers when he plays the song, Yesterday, to his friends that none of them have ever heard it, or of The Beatles. They think he’s written the most beautiful song ever, and as he comes to realise that indeed The Beatles have not existed in this strange new world, he sees a unique opportunity to boost his up-until-now dismal music career. He makes a list of as many Beatles songs as he can remember and sets about working them out on his guitar and passing them off as his own. If only he could remember all the lyrics to Eleanor Rigby.
Of course, Jack becomes a huge star and a legendary songwriter, even impressing Ed Sheeran, who amusingly bows down to him as the Mozart to his Salieri after they have a song-writing competition. Sheeran is surprisingly good in a role bigger than a cameo and it’s a lot of fun. But Curtis can tend to go for some lazy caricatures in his writing, with here being Kate McKinnon’s ruthless manager character, Debra. There’s not a subtle element in the writing or the performance. More successful is Ellie, played by Lily James (Cinderella, Downton Abbey), who’s sweet and endearing as Jack’s loyal manager (because she’s secretly in love with him).
Yesterday’s director Danny Boyle has helmed some very successful films, including Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire, and Yesterday presents him with some great opportunities to show his considerable craft. As the plot moves on and Jack is forced to question his authenticity, things become quite poignant, especially during a special scene which really can’t be talked about without taking away from the surprise.
And yet, there’s still that nagging concern that more could’ve been done to explain how and why this bizarre scenario has occurred. After all, how can any of us imagine a world where The Beatles didn’t exist? (And The Rolling Stones did!) Even Ed Sheeran is a case in point. If their songs hadn’t changed musical history, who knows if he would’ve ever found his way onto the world stage. It actually hurts your brain to think about it. And that might be exactly why the resolution can never be truly satisfying. Still, full marks for trying.