Imagine there’s no Beatles. It’s easy if you try. That’s the conceit behind Yesterday, which brings together two other British cultural powerhouses: the director Danny Boyle, who has a gift for ecstatic popular entertainment (including Slumdog Millionaire and the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics), and the screenwriter Richard Curtis, who can be thanked, or blamed, for the shape of the modern romcom. The film starts with an unexplained supernatural event: a power cut that lasts for 12 seconds and eradicates all traces of the Beatles and their music from history and from the minds of everyone in the world.
Except, that is, for Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling musician from Lowe-stoft. By dint of being involved in a road accident at the exact moment the lights went out, Jack’s memory is left intact. His friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) visits him in hospital the next day. When he jokingly asks if she’ll still need him, and if she’ll still feed him, when he’s 64, she wrinkles her nose and says: “Why 64?”
As Jack starts to realise that he knows something no one else does, he has to decide whether to exploit that gift for personal gain by passing off some exemplary songwriting as his own. There’s fun to be had from the gulf between the music and the humdrum contexts in which it is first heard. Jack premieres “In My Life” on a Suffolk daytime TV show, and unveils “Let It Be” in his parents’ front room, though Mum (Meera Syal) and Dad (Sanjeev Bhaskar) keep interrupting and can’t remember the title. Was it “Let Him Be”, they wonder, or “Leave It Be”?
Success beckons when Ed Sheeran invites Jack to be the support act on his tour. It isn’t hard to think of 20 actors who could give a more natural and convincing performance in the part of Ed Sheeran than Ed Sheeran does. It’s very much on-brand for celebrities to send themselves up as arrogant or obnoxious (Keanu Reeves does a glorious job in the recent Always Be My Maybe) but nothing in Sheeran’s stunned expression suggests he gets the joke. Whereas Kate McKinnon as Debra, Sheeran’s grasping, catty manager, gives comic line-readings that are like Beatles songs to our ears. On paper, her put-down of Jack – “Is this the best you can look?” – sounds routine. Her notes of snobbery, horror and alarm are anything but.
Debra’s concern relates to scruffiness rather than race, and the film is far too bland to consider the issues an American record company might have with marketing an Anglo-Asian superstar. The spectacle of a non-white performer as the custodian of the Beatles’ back catalogue feels faintly and pleasantly radical, even if the picture spoils some of that good work by ending with a singalong of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” in all its patronising white-reggae pomp.
But then the filmmakers have already squandered so many other opportunities. While the camera may love Lily James, you can’t say the same for the script. Curtis has proved he can create spiky roles for women (Emma Thompson in The Tall Guy, Julia Roberts in Notting Hill), so the lack of a single witty or interesting line for James to deliver must be a choice rather than an accident. It’s also catastrophic that the movie banishes any discord or drama as soon as it arises. There’s a supremely inspired moment when the whimsical symbol of a yellow submarine is invested suddenly with dread and foreboding. No sooner has that happened than the suspense is dispelled and we’re back to waiting for nice Jack to notice that nice Ellie has been in love with him all along.
If Yesterday is a failure it is because, like Curtis’s time-travel romcom About Time, it lacks the sort of robust rules that are crucial to the most far-fetched fantasy. The removal of the Beatles from history transpires to have fewer repercussions on the world than any butterfly effect. One tiny example: Jack’s internet search for Oasis draws a blank and yet somehow he still has a poster on his wall advertising the Pixies, the breakneck Boston band once described by David Bowie as “the psychotic Beatles”. That’s Bowie who covered “Across the Universe”, incidentally, and co-wrote “Fame” with John Lennon. And where does Yesterday leave the Beach Boys, whose masterpiece Pet Sounds wouldn’t have existed without Rubber Soul?
Late in the day, a Beatle turns up in the story played by an actor, which suggests that John, Paul, George and Ringo do exist after all – it’s just that, in this poorly planned parallel reality, they never got round to forming a band. With every query and inconsistency, that sense of surrender necessary for escapism is imperilled. The casual downgrading of some of the most beautiful songs ever written to the level of pub rock scarcely counts in the film’s favour either, though Debra’s comment about one of Jack’s self-penned compositions – “It’s simple without being charming” – hints that Curtis can at least write devastating one-line reviews of his own work.
“Yesterday” is in cinemas from 28 June
dir: Danny Boyle
This article appears in the 26 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order