Firstly, I would like to make it known that I would not have gone anywhere near this film if I had realised that Richard Curtis had anything to do with it. Secondly, for this and next weekend I am watching films downloaded rather than purchased on DVD as this long run of Sunday morning cinema is almost over and I am going to have to think of something else to do very shortly. And thirdly, I only downloaded the film on the advice of a work colleague, who praised it as very funny in that other world before the pandemic, and who I haven’t seen in over seven months.
That said, let me deal with the film. It’s premise is simple: what if, one day, a struggling musician woke up to discover he was (practically) the only person in the world who remembered The Beatles? The idea originated with a writer named Jack Barth, who developed a screenplay based around the notion – indisputable – that ideas come from their own place and, most crucially, time. His struggling musician pretends the songs are his. This is one of the greatest pantheons of music ever recorded, the most widely influential pop music whose DNA is woven indelibly into the sounds that surround us.
And they flop.
Richard Curtis bought the rights and, in a completely uncharacteristic move, turned the story into a romantic comedy. Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, who’s quit his job as a teacher to build a music career. He has a small but devoted following, of about 6 people, all, like him, from that rock’n’roll hotbed, Lowestoft in Suffolk.
First, literally, and foremost among them is his manager/roadie/driver Ellie Appleton (Lily James, playing ‘Elle’ as a slightly restrained manic pixie dream girl, and who I should emphasise immediately is a delight throughout). Obviously, to everyone except Jack, Ellie has been in love with him since time immemorial, and there is a poignantly painful scene where she asks him how she got into the wrong column? Into the Friend column, not the ‘And I Love Her’ column. Public demand keeps Jack from answering a question he has never expected to hear.
Jack’s getting nowhere. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s just… undistinguished. Then, one night, cycling home having sworn off his failed musical career, there is a 12 second global blackout, at the end of which he is hit by a bus. Once recovered, he is given a new guitar by Ellie. His friends ask him to play it, so he plays ‘Yesterday’. They think it’s beautiful. They’ve never heard it before.
At first, Jack doesn’t believe them. We have to go through an unfunny this-is-all-a-complex-practical-joke-on-me sequence before Jack realises, thanks to the Internet, that this is now a world in which The Beatles never existed, that John and Paul and George and Ringo are unknowns, and that Oasis don’t exist (obvious but only marginally funny joke, easily of Curtis’s standards).
And for some reason that has no bearing on the story, Cocal Cola and the Harry Potter books don’t exist either.
How has this happened? Why has it happened? Barth’s original screenplay was entirely about this but Curtis couldn’t give a toss. There is no explanation, which some will say is sensible, not clogging up the story with unnecessary implausibility (because, let’s face it, whatever explanation there might be will be completely implausible in a supposedly grounded, realistic film), and some will say renders the whole film a total nonsense. I’m one of them.
The premise isn’t a premise. It’s a gimmick. After some early and token demonstrations of Jack being a flop even with the greatest songs of all time, he becomes a rising star of unearthly magnitude when Ed Sheeran (playing himself with a great deal of charitable humility) sees him on local TV, invites him to open for him on tour in Moscow, and hooks him up with Ed’s manager, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon, playing a ruthless role that’s supposed to be funny, a satire on the modern music business, but which doesn’t raise any laughs because Debra acts like we expect the music business to operate anyway: you cannot satirise the exceedingly ludicrous).
So Jack, busy recalling every Beatles song he can – he’s struggling with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – is being shaped in LA to be the biggest star the world has ever known. Ellie’s still teaching in Lowestoft and all he has to connect him to normality is his buddy Rocky (Joel Fry, played as an inoffensive but useless stoner stumbler, nothing like a cliche at all, no, really).
He visits Liverpool for inspiration. Ellie joins him for a brilliant evening that almost ends in bed, but she can’t do it. She doesn’t want a one-night stand with Jack. And his inability to choose between her and stardom is the end. He’s had half her lifetime to make a move and she’s waited, and now she needs to find a life.
Frankly, I want to pass over the next sequence. It’s unimportant to any point the story has to make, a sideshow to the romance bit. It’s taken as a given that Jack’s songs are the greatest thing since bread came sliced, that they will dominate the music scene of 2019, that they will blow Ed Sheeran away as a nobody (I told you his performance was generous), and they will change the face of music forever. There’s not a second of thought given to the fact that these songs range between 50 and 60 years old, that ‘I wanna hold your hand’ is being presented in 2019, that this music is being released into a music scene that is identical to 2019, which has long since been influenced by the very music that’s supposedly being heard for the first time ever.
Some have accused Yesterday of under-developing its premise. That would be to imply that it develops it at all.
The closest we get is Jack getting incresingly disturbed by the insanity of what he is being put through, and disturbed at the praise he’s getting for somehing he had no part in creating, that he has stolen wholesale.
Along the way, there have been hints that some other people remember. There are two, Leo, a Russian (Justin Edwards) and Liz, a Liverpudlian (Sarah Lancaster). They remember The Beatles, heaven knows why. And they’re not here to challenge Jack, but to thank him. Thank him for the chance to hear the music again, to give it life once more after it’s been torn out of history. Liz – not a stereotypical Liverpool name, no, not at all – spoils the scene by saying she thinks a world with the Beatles’ music is inferior (oh, FFS, Curtis!). She hands Jack a piece of paper.
And the film throws a sucker gut-punch at you that’s totally alien to everything that has gone on. Because the paper has an address on, a lonely, isolated cottage by the sea, the home of a man who’s had a long and contented life, living simply with the woman he loves, a man who paints. An uncredited Robery Carlyle plays John Lennon, and those of us old bastards, who sat at their breakfast tables that December of 1981, and heard the news, get a punch to the heart. John Lennon, alive, 78 years old. Oh God, to see him again, for it not to have happened. These are things that only happen on parallel worlds. is that it? Is that what happened? Curtis doesn’t care.
It’s a kicker that came at a time in the film when I was, not so much bored as wondering what the point of it was.
So Lennon is the catalyst. Jack blags a favour off Ed, interrupts his show at the new Wembley Stadium, gets Ellie backstage and on the screen, to confess his theft, his creative absence, to her and everyone at once, as Rocky uploads the entire songbook to the Internet, for free.
Oh, and he tells Ellie that he loves her, and they run off, back to Lowestoft, to the inevitable ripping-each-others-clothes-off-on-the-way-to-the-bedroom scene, followed by a montage that includes marriage, children and Jack as a music teacher getting an assembley of kids to sing ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ but not the line about Desmond doing his pretty face.
So. But for the bit with Lennon, which made me cry again, dammit, and Lily James’ actually quite delightful perfomance, the film was a nothing, an intriguing idea given a teaspoonful’s worth of thought, having a mountain irrelevance erected on top of it. It’s a ‘juke-box’ movie too, one of those excuses for all the great hits to be layed to an unconvincing story-line. And whilst I enjoyed the songs, firstly they were just thrown at us like a wodge, with ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Yesterday’ and ‘I saw her standing there’ and ‘The Long and Winding Way’ turfed out as one, as if the Beatles’ career wasn’t one of musical development and expansion, and secondly, with all due respect to Himesh Patel, I would rather have heard them from the Beatles, ok, right? Fab.