Imagine there’s no Beatles...see if you can. That is basically the conceit of Danny Boyle’s new film Yesterday. Boyle is an accomplished British film-maker, having such titles as Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Slumdog Millionaire on his resume. The screenplay is by Richard Curtis, a Kiwi who has written for BBC TV’s Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley, and movies Four Weddings and a Funeral, and many others including the rom-com holiday juggernaut, Love Actually. With this high-powered creative team, and a Beatles-centric theme, I was expecting quite a film.
I found this film strangely touching, but I think it affected me in a way it wasn’t intended to. The story concerns struggling musician Jack Malik, living on the English seaside in Lowestoft, Suffolk (with some beautiful local scenery used throughout). Jack (well played by Himesh Patel) struggles with his singer-songwriting gig, playing his simple, uninspiring music (tunes like ‘Summer Song’ and ‘Dinosaur’) and is shown doing the musician- paying- his-dues thing, including lots of terrible gigs. Most musicians in the audience will be familiar with this part of the story. Through it all he is given amazing support from his manager and childhood friend, Ellie (played by Lily James, who is beautiful and radiant and you immediately wonder why they aren’t romantic). It’s set up at the beginning that Jack thinks of her as a sister. This part is not so believable.
So slight spoilers ahead are needed to discuss the film, but I think I’ve held back the biggest jaw-dropping moment.
So the big thing happens, Jack is cycling home after a late-night gig (and a blow-up with Ellie where he tells her he’s quitting music) when there is a mysterious short worldwide power blackout, in the middle of which Jack is hit by a bus. After a few days in hospital (with Ellie by his side), he’s out and hanging with his friends. They give him a new guitar to replace his run-over one, and he plays ‘Yesterday’ on it for them. This is the first point in the film I started to cry. The idea of a bunch of people hearing ‘Yesterday’ for the first time was a little too much for me.
So the science fiction component of the film involves The Beatles. And maybe some kind of alternate universe deal. After the blackout, no one remembers The Beatles or their music. The stock ‘Google search’ scene is used well in this movie, as the occasional post-black out erased existence comes up, impacting a few odd items besides The Beatles. So Jack slowly comes to realize he may be the only person in the world that remembers The Beatles. A certain suspension of disbelief is needed here. So what would you do in his place? He quickly begins making lists of all the Beatles songs and rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing “his” new repertoire. There are a few great scenes where he frantically tries to remember lyrics, especially ‘Eleanor Rigby.’
Everything is fairly predictable from this point. Jack records a local demo, gets on local British TV, is ‘discovered’ by Ed Sheeran and opens a show in Moscow for Sheeran. Sheeran is good playing himself, but it’s a thankless task, as he creates a songwriting duel with Jack. When Sheeran plays ‘Penguin’ it's pretty meh, and Jack comes up with ‘The Long And Winding Road.” Guess who wins.
Jack is quickly swooped up by the evil record conglomerate, taking on Ed Sheeran’s manager (played with one-note grace by SNL’s Kate McKinnon) and is immediately poised for stardom. Of course, Jack is torn. He wants to be a famous musician but he realizes he’s living a lie as he hasn’t written any of these great songs. There is a cool subplot involving a geezer from Moscow and an older lady from Liverpool (where Jack visits for inspiration, and Strawberry Fields home has just been demolished) who stalk him. When he meets these two he’s sure they are going to ‘out’ his secret, but for whatever reason they do remember The Beatles, and they are glad that Jack has brought the music to the world. The lady’s quote is "without The Beatles, the world is worse…" I think this is the central point of the movie.
At this point, the story turns into a standard love story. It’s a bit sappy but again I was affected by it. Ellie follows Jack to Liverpool, she professes her love, he seems clueless, and they are on the verge of a drunken tryst. Of course it doesn’t happen, and next day Ellie tells him he’s had "ten years to make his move." Jack has to go right now to be famous in Los Angeles. He plans to play his big debut in his hometown, at the once-defunct Pier Hotel. During the gig, Jack is cracking up over the loss of Ellie, turning ‘Help’ into an effective primal cry of a man with personal, professional, temporal and epistemological crises converging at once. After this gig, he meets the two other people who remember The Beatles. They tell him thanks and give him an address.
In the most evocative scene, Jack visits the address. I won’t give it all away but it is a stunning sequence, and Jack now understands what he has to do. This scene worked for me, but Adrienne found it distressing. I imagine most Beatle fans will fall in one camp or the other. We agreed it was very well done.
Jack gets on the bill at another Ed Sheeran show, at Wembley Stadium, where on stage he fesses up that he hasn’t written the Beatles songs, and makes “his catalog” downloads free to all, and he professes his love for Ellie. It's sappy and a predictable move, but satisfying. The Curtis take on the rom-com recipe usually has bitters liberally sprinkled in the treacle (Emma Thompson in LoveActually, anyone?). There is a happily-ever-after end here though: Jack goes home, starts a life and has kids with Ellie, and becomes a music teacher.
Himesh Patel has a perfect voice for the task of the film: a little guy simply presenting songs that speak for themselves. The song selection skews a little Paul-heavy, but that suits the troubadour one-man, one-guitar presentation of these classic songs. He does not mimic the vocals that we know by heart, and that makes for one of the more believable parts of this fanciful story. He presents the songs with care and competence.
So, for a film that’s so much about The Beatles, Yesterday is a bit of a mess. The science fiction doesn’t make sense (to be known henceforth as The Wonderwall Paradox), the love story is predictable, and it’s hard to see exactly what it all means. Nevertheless, I was moved by this movie. I could not imagine a world with no Beatles. They have made such a profound impact on my life. I found the love story somehow spoke to me. If you are a certain age, I suppose this is a must see movie. Many audience left the multiplex, gently humming Beatles songs to themselves, to each other. The movie I compare it to of course is Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe which is a real stunner of a sixties tale set to The Beatles music. I’m interested in what you think about Yesterday. Imagine.