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 their 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. 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 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 De, Ob La Da is a particular challenge), determined to save them for posterity. But Jack then realises he faces an 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?
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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 jetted off to a Hollywood studio by his cheerfully cynical new agent Debra (Kate McKinnon). Only problem is, Jack is feeling increasingly uneasy about passing the songs off as his own, and he’s also begun to realise that he might actually be in love with Ellie.
I’m not always swayed by the saccharin charms of Mr. 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 Fab Four’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.
Himesh Patel is best known for appearing in the BBC soap EastEnders, but has also dabbled in stand-up. Danny 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 coming timing underpins the film’s success.
His performances of the songs have a rough, unpolished charm which makes them feel fresh, unvarnished, and he achieves an easy chemistry with Ed Sheerin, and Lily James. She is a charming actress, a pure beauty capable of convincing you she’s the girl next door, and 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 reverendly by this heartwarming, irresistible film.