Yesterday review – amicable musical forgets what made the Beatles great

Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis come together for a crowd-pleasing fantasy that feels a bit like a missed opportunity

What would the world be like had the Beatles never existed? It’s this endlessly fascinating question that director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually) mostly avoid in Yesterday, save for an obligatory gag suggesting Oasis wouldn’t exist either. Less concerned with exploring an alternate history in which the Fab Four never became the world’s most popular band, it settles instead on being a broad and mostly charming rom-com about what happens when a struggling songwriter is gifted with the greatest songbook ever conceived.

The songwriter in question is Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a talented but failing musician who spends his time playing to uninterested pub crowds and distracted children whilst holding down a part-time job in a warehouse. He’s supported by his unflinching best friend and manager, Ellie (Lily James), arguably the least believable character in cinema history to have been friend-zoned. Then it happens: a global power surge causes Jack to crash his bike into a bus. When he awakens the Beatles have been wiped from history and he’s the only person who remembers them. Just think of the possibilities.

The first act of Yesterday proves its most successful, as Jack tries out his new “powers” and frantically attempts to recall the lyrics to those more obscure Beatles numbers. Later, the film mines more formulaic territory, as he rises to fame and deals with the consequences. Boyle directs with some visual panache, but this really feels like Curtis’ film – for better or worse. For better: likeable characters, affable banter, a love story we can invest in. For worse: characters we’ve seen before, cringey lines, a romance riddled with cliches. Thankfully the breezy tone and songs – performed respectfully by Patel, who actually sounds a little bit like Paul McCartney – ensure that it all goes down as easily as a greatest hits compilation.

Unlike the Beatles, though, whose genius stemmed from a ceaseless desire to innovate, Curtis sidesteps every opportunity for a more creative – though perhaps far less crowd-pleasing – film. Would songs like “She Loves You” and “Let it Be” really have become instant hits today, for example, pertaining to modern taste and trends? It doesn’t seem to matter: they all come charged with a magical appeal that transcends time and Jack is simply deemed the greatest songwriter ever by everyone he meets – Ed Sheeran included, whose bizarre, one-note extended cameo here as himself is impossible to read.

There is a great film to be made from this simple but irresistible premise and the questions it poses about the ways in which music has the power to shape the world. Yesterday is merely a good one. I came away entertained, though craving something a lot less “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and a lot more “I Am the Walrus.”

★★★☆☆

By: Tom Barnard

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