When the trailers for Yesterday, the new film from Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis, landed online, people didn’t know what to think. Here’s a concept that seems bonkers, impossible to pull off and, oh, there’s Ed Sheeran. And yet it seems… fun? This and the talent involved, from director Danny Boyle to writer Richard Curtis, made it an ever-more intriguing prospect.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a 20-something struggling musician who, at the dismay of his long-time manager Ellie (Lily James), is ready to give up the game and go back to teaching. That is before a freak event in which the world’s electricity cuts out (don’t think too hard about the logistics of that) for 12-seconds leads him to wake up as seemingly the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles.
After confirming that, yes, The Beatles never existed in his current reality, Jack sees an opportunity and begins claiming the band’s greatest hits as his own. Soon superstardom comes knocking by way of Ed Sheeran (playing himself, somewhat awkwardly), and Jack has to wrestle with whether to take the credit or be honest with the world.
It’s a bold and frankly bizarre concept, and one that makes About Time seem modest and sensicle in comparison. But for the most part Yesterday works, hand-waving the massive logical leaps it makes and focusing instead on both the music and what should be a star-making breakout performance for Patel.
This is, of course, a Richard Curtis film, so there are lots of jokes about embarrassing parents and crisps. There’s a wacky stoner best friend (here played by Joel Fry) and James Corden. It’s this pleasing British-ness that’s made his films so successful since the halcyon days of floppy-haired Hugh Grant, and it functions as well as ever here.
Patel is the perfect Curtis protagonist, all shifty, awkward body language and charming self-deprecation. He’s handsome without jokes about his unattractiveness seeming weird, and anyone who knows him from his days on Albert Square know his comic-timing is a highlight.
He’s supported by winning turns from James and Kate McKinnon – the latter a soulless record label executive who provides a huge chunk of the movie’s laughs. The character of Ellie sadly doesn’t mark much of an update of the usual Curtis female, her character all frizzy hair and denim jackets designed to make her a believable match for our protagonist, but James is always good and she almost single-handedly sells the love story.
Danny Boyle’s direction is stunning in places, even if it’s strange to reconcile the director’s distinctive, kinetic style with the incredibly light-hearted tone and subject matter of what is essentially a high-concept romantic comedy. It’s this that ultimately makes Yesterday more interesting. The film does a wonderful job of giving the audience a sense of the sheer scale of Jack’s lie and how his panic and suffocation would build over time, while still keeping within – and at times playing with – the conventions of the genre.
Speaking of genre, Yesterday is also a good musical showcase in much the same way as Bohemian Rhapsody and, presumably, Rocketman. Patel has a lovely voice, and it helps that he’s not supposed to be doing an impression.
The romantic throughline in Yesterday is also pretty decent, but as a film about The Beatles suddenly disappearing from our culture, it gets trickier. While other works that may have been inspired by or tangentially linked to the band are indeed also missing (there’s a good running joke about Jack googling things, which is funnier than it sounds), there’s little exploration of what this would mean to the larger culture.
The Beatles were a very specific thing that existed at a very specific time, so who’s to say they would have had the same cultural relevance in 2019? That’s an argument with no answer, granted, but it’s a shame the film doesn’t even consider it. And can we really believe that a Beatles cover band could achieve the same level of success as the foursome themselves?
But in the end, maybe enjoyment of the film depends on your ability to swallow the concept. Once you’ve done that then Yesterday is a lovely feel-good summer movie with its heart on its sleeve and its head in the clouds. It’s true that these are damn fine songs, and sometimes that – and love of course – is all you need.
Yesterday opens in UK cinemas on 28 June.