Tuesday 16 July 2019

Absurd premise comes together with fab two

Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis do a brilliant job of making a very silly idea sing, says Paul Whitington

Himesh Patel is brilliant in the lead role
Himesh Patel is brilliant in the lead role
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

In one of Yesterday's funniest moments, a young man who finds out he's living in a world where The Beatles never existed and only he can remember their songs, googles the band Oasis and finds nothing. The cultural ramifications of the Fab Four's absence are, of course endless, and Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis have great fun analysing them. But what's more astonishing about Yesterday is that it manages to make its absurd premise work.

Himesh Patel is Jack Malek, a young man from a dreary southern English coastal town whose attempts to become a successful singer/songwriter have thus far come to nothing. He's geed up by his friend and manager Ellie (Lily James), who consoles him after pub gigs attended by two cats and a dog, and assures him he's talented.

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Jack is not so sure and he's about to pack it in and get an actual job when fate intervenes spectacularly.

He's cycling home from another damp squib gig one night when a massive solar flare knocks out the entire planet's power grid, causing Jack to crash into a passing bus. When he comes to in hospital minus a couple of teeth, everything at first seems normal. He makes a full recovery and, on the day of his release, is presented with a new guitar by Lily.

He tries it out by playing Yesterday for her and a few friends and, when he finishes, finds them all staring at him open-mouthed. Did he write it? How did he come up with it? At first, Jack thinks they're joking, but finds only images of icky insects when he takes to the internet to look up The Beatles and, with a twinge of loneliness, realises that all those wonderful songs now exist only in his memory. In a panic, he starts singing them all and jotting the lyrics down (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da is a particular challenge), determined to save them for posterity.

But Jack then realises he faces a knotty ethical dilemma. If he starts playing them, no one will believe his mad story about a phantom Liverpool band: how will he explain their existence if not by claiming they're his own?

That, in a muddled sort of way, is exactly what happens and after Jack releases an EP of 'his' songs, Ed Sheeran (playing a very amusing version of himself) comes calling and asks Jack to open for him on a world tour. Pretty soon he's landed a lucrative recording contract of his own, and is flown to a Hollywood studio by his cheerfully cynical new agent Debra (Kate McKinnon) to knock out an eagerly anticipated album. Only problem is, Jack is feeling increasingly uneasy about passing the songs off as his own, and he's also begun to realise he might actually be in love with Ellie.

I'm not always swayed by the saccharin charms of Curtis, but I must admit he has done a brilliant job of actualising this dotty idea. The science of it all does not bear much investigation and he and Danny Boyle wisely rush past the whole solar flare nonsense, but once one accepts the sad fact that The Beatles never happened, Yesterday springs to life.

Oasis are not the only pop culture phenomenon to now not exist: bizarrely, neither does Harry Potter, and it's made clear that the cultural ramifications of John, Paul, George and Ringo's absence are seismic, immense. The mental trick works and when Jack sings the songs in simple, pared back versions, you marvel at their brilliance as though hearing them for the first time.

Patel is best known for appearing in the BBC soap EastEnders, but has also dabbled in stand-up. Boyle and the film's producers took a chance casting a relative unknown, but their risk has been richly rewarded because Patel is brilliant as the film's underwhelmed, glass-half-empty protagonist. To Jack, every stroke of luck is a potential problem, and his deadpan comic timing underpins the film's success. Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal play his distractable parents, and when Jack tries to impress them by playing Let It Be, they chat, criticise and interrupt him constantly.

Patel's performances of the songs have a rough, unpolished charm which makes them feel fresh, unvarnished, and he achieves an easy chemistry with Sheeran and Lily James. James is charming and capable of convincing you she's the girl next door, while Sheeran delights in mocking his own, huge success. "I'm Salieri to your Mozart," he tells Jack glumly at one point. He's not the real Mozart, and the spirit of the greatest rock act of them all is treated respectfully, but never reverently by this heart-warming, irresistible film.

At the movies: Your guide to all the week’s new releases

Apollo 11 (G, 93mins)

Many myths and crackpot conspiracy theories have agglomerated around the Apollo 11 mission over the years, and this lean and focused documentary quietly debunks all that nonsense. Dispensing with talking heads and retrospective context, Todd Douglas Miller’s film uses digitally scanned archive footage of the launch, the flight, the moonwalk and the watching technicians below to illustrate what a breathtaking achievement Apollo 11 was. Again, one is struck by the homemade look of the lunar module, and the inhuman coolness of Neil Armstrong, who seemed born for a task no human had attempted.

In Fabric (18, 118mins)

I do love the endearing oddness of Peter Strickland’s films, which pay meticulous tribute to British and Italian horror films of the 1970s, while ploughing a distinctive furrow of their own. The 70s mood is thick and strong in this delightful little comic chiller, which stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste as a put-upon bank teller who buys herself a fancy red dress for a treat. It turns out to be haunted and plays havoc with her blind dates before moving on to wreck the lives of new, unsuspecting hosts. It’s a bit like an x-rated Tales Of The Unexpected episode, or an epic video art installation, and an absolute delight to watch.

Metal Heart (15A, 88mins)

Jordanne Jones, Moe Dunford and Leah McNamara head the cast of Hugh O’Conor’s slight but charming directorial debut, a coming-of-age comedy set in suburban Dublin. Emma (Jones) has always been in awe of older, prettier sister Chantal (McNamara), and things come to a head when their parents go on holiday and a handsome musician (Dunford) moves in next door. Dan is a bit of a rake and Emma is drawn to him, but Chantal sees disaster looming, and is right. Metal Heart starts a bit stiffly, and is overwritten at times, but gets into its stride thanks to its cheerful undercurrents and a winning cast.

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