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All Your Troubles Will Go Far Away

Lily James
Lily James
Universal Pictures
 116 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed ByDanny Boyle
Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James    

One of the more popular variants of science fiction is alternate history, in which an author or screenwriter imagines historical events turning out differently and then suggests what the resulting future would be like. Perhaps the best-known example of the genre is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, adapted into an Amazon TV series, which shows what the world of the early 1960s (when Dick wrote the novel) would have been like if the Nazis had won World War II. Usually, alternate histories are serious (and often depressing) works, but occasionally, a writer has fun with the possibilities, as Robert Zemeckis did in his Back to the Future movies. Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis don’t imagine a world in which Nazis emerge triumphant, but they do imagine a world without “Imagine” or any other song by any of the Beatles. That happens to be the world of Yesterday, a generally charming romantic comedy with a heavy dose of Fab Four material.


The film’s concept is very simple. Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a struggling singer/songwriter, is hit by a bus one night during a freak power blackout and wakes up in a world in which the Beatles never existed. The other 60s rock groups like the Rolling Stones are still around, but not the lads from Liverpool. Before his accident, Jack had been about ready to give up on a career that consisted of occasional pub or music festival gigs playing forgettable, generic music in front of virtually no one. The only person who still believes in Jack is his unpaid manager and childhood friend, Ellie Appleton (Lily James).


After the accident, Jack discovers that, in the world where he woke up, the Beatles never existed. When Jack recites some of the group’s well-known song lyrics to Ellie and his other friends, they respond with blank stares, and his google search for “Beatles” yields websites about the beetle insect. Jack then decides to start playing various Beatles tunes that he claims to have written himself, and they become popular with the audiences that eventually hear the music.


Jack soon finds himself on the fast road to musical success when Ed Sheeran (playing himself in an extended cameo) hires him as the opening act for his European tour. This tour naturally allows Jack to “create” a new tune for the trip, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Jack winds up signing with a hardnosed record producer (Kate McKinnon), who wants to turn him into the next superstar, courtesy of his library of Beatles tunes. Of course, as often happens in films like this, people who find sudden success don’t find that happiness automatically follows. That’s especially true in Jack’s case as his belated efforts at romance with Ellie backfire when she worries that she’s not good enough for the world’s greatest singer.


Some critics gave Yesterday lackluster reviews for the film’s failure to explore more fully the actual musical ramifications of a world without the Beatles catalog, and others have panned the movie because they claim its depiction of the music industry isn’t all that accurate. These critics need to get over themselves. Yesterday is a romantic comedy fantasy; it is no more real-world than Groundhog Day was, and to get hung up on inaccuracies or a shallow treatment of its subject matter is to miss the point.


As a romantic comedy, Yesterday is undoubtedly flawed but charming in its own way. Its biggest weakness is its insistence o adhere to one of the most basic rom-com tropes, that of the “just friends” relationship. You’ve only seen this one a hundred times before. The guy and gal have known each other for years and are incredibly close to each other but keep insisting that they are just friends, even though everyone else in the world knows they are madly in love with each other. In Yesterday, first Jack thinks he’s not good enough for Ellie because he isn’t a success. Then, when he becomes a success, she doesn’t want to hold him back. This scenario plays out just as ridiculous as it sounds. Fortunately (although not in the least surprisingly), everything works out, thanks to a brilliant, third act cameo.


When they aren’t deluding themselves into thinking they don’t belong together, Himesh Patel and Lily James have great romantic chemistry together. Patel, making his debut here, is quite likable as a scruffy underdog, especially in his hospital scenes that showcase the teeth he lost in the bus accident. And he also has a good singing voice to boot. Although the movie features many Beatles standards, several of which appear in their entirety, it’s Patel who supplies the vocals for most of them. He is a good singer who manages to capture the spirit of the songs, while his stage mannerisms are his own. And James, of course, is as lovable here as in anything else she does.


Unlike many so-called romantic comedies, Yesterday is actually quite funny, although the trailer spoils some of the best jokes. One thing the trailer doesn’t spoil (and neither will I) are other well-known products that never existed in this alternate timeline, as Jack discovers through some frantic and fruitless Google searches throughout the film. And Kate McKinnon always manages to get the maximum laughter from any comic situation. But, the script balances the humor with some surprisingly poignant moments. For one, Jack has trouble remembering the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby” and nearly panics out of fear that his faulty memory may deprive the world of a classic.


Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis are old pros with this sort of material, and Yesterday in some ways channels the mystic romanticism of Slumdog Millionaire. But what the current movie really boils down to is the Beatles and their music. The project had the approval of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr (who had to grant the rights to use the music or Yesterday would never have gotten off the ground), and I can easily see why. Leaving aside quibbles about the screenplay, Yesterday does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the Beatles’ initial appeal to a world that had never heard anything quite like their music. Most of the viewing audience is too young to remember Beatlemania, but this movie is the closest we’re likely to get to it. Add to that a likable main couple, and the film is a winner, and, better (and rarer) yet, a winner that’s not just another piece in someone’s franchise.

In this clip, Himesh Patel struggles to finish singing "Let It Be" to his parents.

Read other reviews of Yesterday: 

Yesterday (2019) on IMDb