When, one day, the big book of Richard Curtis is written, perhaps this will be known as his high concept era. Remember when plots were as simple as literally four weddings and one funeral? No longer. Since those bygone basic days, a dabble in Doctor Who has given way to linearity bending romcom About Time and now Yesterday, which practically science fiction in its exploration of a world without the Beatles. That said, sci-fi is rarely this cute, cuddly, warm and winsome. Nor so lacking in science. Regardless, Curtis’ way with quaint mannerism remains strong and his ear for comedy still tickles all the right bones.
Wiping the Beatles, their music and cultural significance from the face of the planet is a funny way to celebrate them, when you come to think about it. Still, surprisingly effective here. Naturally, it helps that someone – a man from Clacton-on Sea of all places – remembers them. It’s also useful that he can sing, is a dab hand on the guitar and piano, and has a near-perfect memory for Beatles lyrics. This is Jack Malik (Himish Patel), struggling musician, teacher trainee and dying optimist. Performing on piers, with only a fundraising squirrel for company, Jack’s morale is kept up only with a little help from his friend – and part time manager – Ellie (Lily James). But then comes the accident: a calamitous cycling collision with a bus that just happens to occur in the midst of a twelve second global blackout. When Jack awakes the next morning, in hospital, it is to a world for whom beetles are simply hard shelled, eight legged insects.
Before questioning the pseudoscience and rationale behind Yesterday, note that this is a film that encourages you to have fun with the premise and spend no more time scrutinising its plausibility than it does itself. Jack alone can remember the Beatles and that’s that. How it happened and why can go phoey. In Ellie’s own words, on the night of Jack’s accident: ‘miracles happen’. Sure enough, it’s not long before down-on-his-luck Jack gains traction with his Beatles routines. First local television, then the world. As ascents go, this one is exhilarating to watch but wisely balanced with discomfort. It is Jack’s moral, crippling anxiety that makes for a compelling watch, rather than simply witnessing the world experience the magic of ‘Let It Be’, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ afresh. That said, there’s something ineffably splendid in director Danny Boyle’s execution of paired down Beatles hits, sung rather well by former Eastender Patel. Knowing James to be a vocal delight too, it’s a pity we don’t hear her takes too.
Less successful in the construction of Curtis’ Beatles-free parallel universe are playful attempts to grasp at the wider reaching affectations of a cultural epoch that was never exposed to the groundbreaking musical ingenuity of the group. Comic asides – tinged with mild horror – tear holes from the fabric of this alternative world, proclaiming that there would be no Oasis, no Harry Potter nor Coca Cola. And yet, self-proclaimed debtor to the band Ed Sheeran somehow survives the cull; here, enjoying an extended cameo cum advert cum in-joke. James Corden features too, suggesting that the 1960s British Invasion still happened regardless, perhaps led by a briefly mentioned Cilla Black? The film isn’t sure. As things progress, the increasing predominance afforded a more Curtis friendly will-they, won’t-they relationship between Jack and Ellie distracts from the conceit, which it seems was only ever that. There’s almost a sense that the lack of Beatles in Jack’s world is increasingly incidental to the point. This is a thoroughly decent romcom – brimming with Curtisisms: quirky families and glib middle-class friendship groups – but not one that rocks the yellow submarine.
Where Yesterday is at its sharpest is in its relationship with the contemporary music industry. Kate McKinnon is superb as vicious LA executive Debra Hammer – ‘you’re skinny but somehow still round’ – a seductive temptress and greedy hoover of talent. Curtis aims his script weaponlike upon her world, firing a handful of nifty shots along the way. His message is crystal clear – music is all that matters – but in contrast to an industry horrendously overpopulated by sycophants and suits. Image is everything for these people -even a lack of image can become one – and there’s no room for creativity where commercial viability is at stake. Without question, the strongest swipe in the film is Sheeran’s proposal that ‘Hey Dude’ would be so much better a lyric than ‘Hey Jude’. It’s close to the bone, very plausible and all the funnier for it.