The biggest question that this latest effort from Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) offers up is whether a society in which neither The Beatles nor their music have never existed is a worthwhile sacrifice to make for a world in which the likes of cigarettes, Coca-Cola and the Gallagher brothers are also complete non-entities. I mean, in any classroom of high school students today, probably less than half could tell you who The Beatles were, but given the sheer pervasiveness and influence (personal, political, cultural) of their music, what would a world devoid of their artistic output actually look (sound) like? Sure, the absence of nicotine, Noel and Liam from our lives would probably be seen as a net gain by most people, but a world totally devoid of The Beatles seems impossible to imagine. Unfortunately, Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually), spend little time pondering the broader implications of such a scenario, preferring instead to focus on the romance narrative.
An aspiring singer-songwriter struggling to find an audience for his original material, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, in his debut feature outing) is on the cusp of abandoning his quest to forge a music career until an unexplained phenomena plunges the world into darkness for a few seconds and completely recalibrates his career trajectory. Cycling home from a gig at the moment the global blackout occurs, Jack collides with a bus and awakens in hospital minus his front teeth and with no idea about just how much his life is about to change. It is soon after his release from hospital that he discovers none of his friends – which include his best mate, manager and girlfriend-in-waiting Ellie (Lily James) – or anybody else for that matter has any knowledge of the The Beatles or their music. When a recording of Malik performing a Beatles track hits the internet, he soon finds himself in the sights of Ed Sheeran and record label executive Debra (Kate McKinnon). As he gets swept up in the success that follows, Jack loses sight of what (and who) is important to him and is ultimately forced to choose between the trappings of his plagiarised success (fame, wealth) or the woman he loves; and there are no prizes for guessing which choice he makes.
Whilst casting an actor of Indian heritage in a lead role such as this would have been unheard of just a few years ago, any goodwill generated by such an appointment is undermined somewhat by the way in which Jack’s parents Sheila (Meera Syal) and Jed (Sanjeev Bhaskar) are presented as little more than comical caricatures. Boyle and Curtis dish up a slight skewering of the music industry courtesy of McKinnon’s character, whose only interest in Jack is how much money he can make her. When possible album titles are being discussed, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is deemed unsuitable because it has “too many words”. The film clearly proposes a world in which the members of the The Beatles have never met, which therefore means that anything that happened to any of them subsequent to their success also never happened, which makes the outrage over one particular scene featuring Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting, The Full Monty) so hard to fathom. It is not unreasonable in such circumstances to ponder what might have become of the four individuals and there is certainly nothing disrespectful about offering up one possible scenario. The biggest problem with the scene is that it doesn’t really deliver anything particularly insightful and thereby presents as a little gimmicky.
James (Baby Driver, Little Woods) is luminous and Yesterday is always worth watching when she is on screen. In fact, it is impossible to understand how Jack has thus far remained oblivious to Ellie’s considerable charms and not-so-subtle hints at her interest in him. Patel is very effective in the lead and it goes without saying that the music, which includes a rollicking version of Back in the USSR is excellent. Supporting turns from Joel Fry and Alexander Arnold bring a few laughs while, even as himself, Sheeran struggles to convince. Ultimately, this is a feel-good film that dodges many of the most interesting ideas it posits and, by focusing so much on the relationship between Jack and Ellie, it emerges neither as interesting nor as thought-provoking as the promise of its premise.