Danny Boyle works from Richard Curtis’ script in Yesterday to pitch the idea of a world where The Beatles never existed. In reality that could mean a world without music videos, Pet Sounds, Nirvana and an even harder task for British groups hoping to crack America, amongst other things. On the flip side it could also mean no Oasis, no Paul McCartney’s Wings and no Frog Song. All things considered it’s hard to know if whether we’d better or worse off without them.
Which is a joke, of course, but given the musical and cultural impact of the Fab Four, removing them from the discussion is a simple but intriguing premise. Not that you should expect a Curtis script to get anywhere close to exploring it with any real scrutiny. And true to form it never goes beyond asking what if there was only one person who had knowledge of The Beatles songbook and they decided to take ownership under their own name? Former EastEnders actor Himesh Patel is that person and against all the odds he almost makes it work.
Perhaps the more pertinent question should be, if Patel wasn’t around - just like The Beatles in Boyle’s film - how bad would Yesterday be? It’s one that is pretty easy to answer and might be on the tip of your tongue as the film struggles to towards its two hour finish line. In a period where ABBA, Queen, Elton and Springsteen (even The Proclaimers had a moment) are getting the nostalgic sing-along treatment, Yesterday wants some of the action, but surely John, Paul, George and Ringo deserve better than this?
Patel is Jack Malik, a struggling musician used to playing to half-empty pubs and hotel lounges, now on the verge of giving up and resigning himself to a life of shelf-stacking at the local supermarket. Jack's manager and childhood school friend, Ellie (Lily James), believes in his talent, even though he no longer does. That’s until he’s knocked off his bike by a bus in the middle of a worldwide blackout (a moment cleverly set against a A Day in the Life-esque orchestra crescendo) and wakes up as the only person with knowledge of The Beatles - and cigarettes, and Coke, and... (the list goes on). Jack claims the songs as his own and quickly goes from Nowhere Man to worldwide phenomenon.
Patel plays the ordinary Joe who increasingly finds himself out of his depth. The role is a huge leap from the types he’s widely known for on TV but he’s immensely likeable and has a good sense of comic timing to match. Unfortunately, for Patel, the film doesn’t see him as the star of the show. That billing goes to the songs of Lennon and McCartney. Jack’s voice (which appears to be Patel’s own) is pleasant but unremarkable, yet it doesn’t stop the world falling in love with 'his' songs.
Which seems to be the entire idea; they are so good anyone could sing them and become a star (Paul and John’s voices were never the real reason for their success). It’s a point continually made at the sacrifice of the characters who are as shallow as the surface level story. The writing also doesn’t help James’ Ellie, who is little more than a doe-eyed damsel waiting for Jack to sweep her off her feet. But that doesn’t excuse James’ performance who plays those traits up to the limit with annoying conviction.
Yesterday feels far more like a Curtis concoction than it does a Boyle film. The nature of the story leaves no room for Boyle to inject his typical visual flair, and he’s reduced to cramming in ill-fitting Dutch tilts and pointless large fonts to denote a new setting or building location. It could easily lose at least 20 minutes if the non-existent love story between Ellie and Jack wasn’t crowbarred into the narrative at inopportune moments, ruining the pacing in the process. The final stretch also features a toe-curling moment of fan service that is nothing short of embarrassing.
Surprisingly, Ed Sheeran stands out as himself, raising chuckles thanks to a few jokes told at his expense. Kate McKinnon is limited with what she can do but adds some nice stinging sarcastic touches and, as Jack's sidekick Rocky, Joe Fry plays the idiot well enough. Ironically, Yesterday focusses on a man who plagiarises one of the most iconic back catalogues in the history of modern music, while Curtis seems equally happy to continue doing the same to his own. The difference is you can listen to any of The Beatles classics on loop without becoming fatigued, but the less said about Curtis' the better.
Yesterday opens nationwide in UK cinemas on June 28.