Yesterday: Film Review

Rating: 3

By Jason Solomons

You’d never have put Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis together. Back in the 1990s, one was making Trainspotting and kickstarting a rebellious, anarchic movement in British cinema, all Britpop, drugs and dance music. The other made Four Weddings and a Funeral – which, OK, started with a torrent of swear words – and then went on to make Notting Hill the most expensive place in London.

I suppose they were, in the end, two sides of the same British coin. Boyle became ‘establishment’ when he directed HM The Queen parachuting into the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony; Curtis became a saint through his efforts masterminding Comic Relief.

So you wonder whose sensibility, Boyle’s or Curtis’s, will win out in their new film, Yesterday. Or, I was thinking, maybe they’ll both be so in awe of The Beatles that they’ll both get stuck.

Yesterday is the story of a struggling Lowestoft musician called Jack Malik (played by relative newcomer Himesh Patel) who, during a brief global electrical blackout, gets hit by a bus and wakes up to discover that he’s the only one who’s heard of The Beatles. You can’t even Google them.

So, he starts singing their songs, starting with Yesterday, at which all his friends are flabbergasted. ‘It’s really nice,’ they say. ‘It’s actually one of the greatest songs ever written,’ protests Jack. ‘OK, now you’re getting a bit cocky,’ say the mates.

But Jack continues and soon he’s on Good Morning Suffolk and attracting the attention of Ed Sheeran, who invites him on tour with him. 

All the while, Jack’s long-suffering number one fan and manager Ellie (gamely played by the ever-effervescent Lily James) is realising her client’s sudden, unexplained creative surge will take him out of her hands – she’s a maths teacher in a local secondary school, after all.

Despite its goofy premise, the film barrels along sweetly enough. There’s a lovely scene where he plays Let it Be to his parents for the very first time. They’re Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal, going for big laughs: ‘What’s it called? Leave Him Be?’

Jack gets very famous and his songs – from A Day in the Life to I Wanna Hold Your Hand, I Saw Her Standing There and Nowhere Man – understandably prove very popular online. He gets signed up to a big record label and has to move to LA. Where does this leave poor, sweet, slightly underwritten Ellie?

Patel carries the weight (Beatles pun intended) of singing the songs pretty well. He also looks like a man harbouring secret guilt at not owning up to the source of all these amazing new songs. Maybe, as an inexperienced actor, he’s just a bit overawed – hard to tell, but it does result in a sense of something being held back, of him just bumbling through the sudden increase in his life’s tempo, the ‘dreams come true’ bit. 

And that’s the Boyle/Curtis sweet spot Venn diagram thing – Boyle has always been about quick ecstasy and sudden highs; Curtis always about the bumbling, the being out of your league and not quite believing your luck. Jack Malik at Wembley is all that at once.

If I’m honest, I was dreading Yesterday. I thought the trailer looked rubbish and that the whole idea was, frankly, dreadful. But, I’m relieved to report, the finished film isn’t. It gets away with it. The songs are (clearly) good, the acting reliably charming, the direction polished and inspired when it needs be. It isn’t as hilarious, nor as thrilling as both Curtis and Boyle can be when in full flow, but it works. 

And it’s about those moments, those points in time when you make big decisions that change your life: romantic choices, life choices, moral choices – all things that have long-interested both this writer and this director, when any of us has to decide, Prufrock-like, to ‘squeeze the universe into a ball and roll it towards some overwhelming question’. 

That’s what Yesterday does. I don’t know if it’s a classic but it certainly looks as though it’s here to stay.

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