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Himesh Patel in Yesterday.
Patel And Lily James.
A kind of ultimate musical wish-fulfillment, up there with raiding the lost ark or having to get back to the future
Imagine there’s no Beatles; I wonder if you can.
That’s the elevator pitch for this high-concept bit of fun from director Danny Boyle, who can now add musical-rom-com to his ever-growing list of genre crossover hits that includes biopic-thriller ( 127 Hours ), sci-fi-horror ( 28 Days Later ) and game-show-drama ( Slumdog Millionaire ).
Himesh Patel, a regular on Britain’s EastEnders from 2007 to 2016, stars as Jack Malik, an affable, struggling musician on the verge of packing it in, much to the dismay of his optimistic manager and best friend Ellie (Lily James).
One night, biking home from his latest gig, he gets caught in a worldwide, 12-second power blackout, just long enough to get struck by a bus in the dark. Beatles fans – I’m guessing there may be a few in the audience – will recognize the E-major piano chord from the end of “A Day in the Life” as the score for the crash.
When Jack wakes up in hospital, he’s missing two teeth. But the world has taken a bigger hit. There’s no White Album , no “Blackbird” and no “Yellow Submarine,” no songs about “Lucy in the Sky” or “Sexy Sadie,” “Polythene Pam” or “Lady Madonna.” Jack is the only one who can remember any of it. He is one lonely hearts club band.
That’s the downside. The upside is that, as a musician, he’s capable of recreating all the group’s greatest songs from memory. As Jack amazes his friends and then his growing base of fans with hit after hit, Yesterday becomes a kind of ultimate musical wish-fulfillment, up there with raiding the lost ark or having to get back to the future.
Jack has access to the group’s entire catalogue, except the bits even he can’t remember; it takes him ages to recreate the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby.” And he can mix up the chronology, writing “I Saw Her Standing There” from 1963 and following it up with “Let it Be” from 1970 – all without the need for drugs, transcendental meditation or Yoko Ono.
Yesterday’s screenplay was written by Jack Barth and Richard Curtis – at least, I assume it was, and didn’t fall into their laps from an alternate universe where the movie already exists and took the 1998 Best Picture Oscar away from Shakespeare in Love , and wouldn’t that be a world? It is deliberately (and thankfully) vague as to the celestial mechanics that cause the Fab Four to vanish, though it does have fun with the notion that a few other items have been misplaced. ( Saturday Night Live seems to air on Thursdays, for instance.)
This of course opens up a rabbit-hole of philosophical questions for you to mull over or ignore at your leisure. How would you even know if everyone in the world forgot Leonardo da Vinci’s second copy of the Mona Lisa? (I’m kidding.) Or if your childhood copy of The Berenstein Bears was suddenly called The Berenstain Bears ? (I’m not kidding; look it up.)
Like Groundhog Day, Yesterday invites these kinds of reflections but doesn’t demand them. You can enjoy the tale at face value, though in that case you may find yourself thinking that laid-back superstar Ed Sheeran wasn’t the best choice for “real musician cameo,” any more than that time he popped up in Game of Thrones .
You may also notice that the romantic subplot between Jack and Ellie is woefully under-developed and over-signposted. It also reeks of studio interference; “Come on, you’ve got to have a love story angle!” This in a movie where the A-side relationship is between a musician and the greatest songbook in history. Ellie’s torch-carrying is, I’m sorry to say, the film’s weakest note.
But it’s the central concept that has made Yesterday one of the most anticipated movies of the summer, and one of the most enjoyable. And how perfect to pick the 20th-century’s most influential and well-spoken rock band! Can you imagine someone trying to piece together half-recalled mumbled lyrics from Bob Dylan? Or Elton John? “Back to the howling old owl in the woods, hunting the horny back toad?” And I only know that line from “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” because I had the bizarre experience of watching the world premiere of Rocketman in Cannes, where they put English subtitles on everything.
It’s clear the world would be a poorer place without George Harrison’s “Something,” John Lennon’s “In My Life,” Ringo Starr’s “Octopus’s Garden” and Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” a song so covered and so popular, there’s a theory that it’s been playing constantly, in one place or another, for the last 50 years.
Yesterday, the movie, toys with the lovely idea that the universe wouldn’t even allow this music not to exist. And if you dig that notion, you may enjoy my idea for a sequel: Imagine there’s no Star Wars …
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