Yesterday is the latest comedy (with sad bits) from Richard Curtis, directed by Danny Boyle, about an unsuccessful singer-songwriter, Jack, who wakes up to discover that he’s the only one who remembers the Beatles so can now steal all their tunes, if he’s of that mind. Unusually for Curtis, the lead is an Asian and there is no Bill Nighy (not a sign, not a whiff), which is an advance. And there are some funny moments — when Jack first plays ‘Yesterday’ to some friends, one sniffs: ‘It’s not exactly Coldplay, is it?’ But. It’s all intertwined with a romance that is not just generic but also intolerable. Strangely, I’ve still yet to be invited to speak at any film school, but if I were I would offer this as my first piece of sound advice: ‘Please stop having young women in flowery dresses helping men realize who they are while lovingly watching on from the wings. Thanks.’
Jack (Himesh Patel) is a Suffolk boy who busks without any crowds gathering at all, the poor fella, yet he does, somewhat inexplicably, have a manager (Ellie, played by Lily James). She has been a friend since school and, to be fair, she does secure him a gig at Latitude, even if he plays to an empty tent. She believes in his talent and schlepps his guitar — let him do it himself! — and is obviously in love with him. But he isn’t aware of that, as would have to be the case if the generic romance is to play out, and she is to watch from the wings until he finally comprehends what’s what.
Jack is, in fact, about to give up music when there’s this freak event involving a 12-second global power outage during which he is knocked unconscious by a bus. When he awakens in hospital, with Ellie nowhere to be seen — only kidding! She’s at his bedside — it’s as if the Beatles never were. He later strums ‘Yesterday’ for some friends who are wowed to tears, even if it isn’t quite Coldplay. He races home to his record collection, discovers all his Beatles albums have disappeared, then Googles them, and nothing. The Rolling Stones? Yes, they’re there. Beach Boys and Bowie? Yup. Oasis? Also gone. That, too, is quite funny.
To cut a somewhat overstretched story short, Jack delivers ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘Back in the USSR’, among others — Patel is a perfectly credible singer, btw — and is soon a sensation, mentored by Ed Sheeran (wooden, but rather adorably so). He also acquires an accident-prone roadie (Joel Fry) and a ruthless American agent (Kate McKinnon) and chooses fame and fortune over Ellie. But is he happy? He is not. Does he feel like an imposter? He does. The film could have asked some quite clever questions about art and its presentation — would the songs stand up if they hadn’t been sung 50 years ago by the Beatles? Would it not have been more interesting if Jack had failed? But instead it simply opts for some fancy, convoluted footwork to keep Jack likable and on the side of right. There’s a particularly bewildering scene towards the end involving someone in a prosthetic nose but any plot inconveniences are just batted out of the way.
And the moral? This being a Curtis film, I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that it doesn’t amount to more than love trumps all. Which, of course, the woman in the flowery dress supportively watching from the wings knew all along. Sigh.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.