- Running Time: 1hr 56mins
- Written by: Richard Curtis
- Directed by: Danny Boyle
- Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Joel Fry, Kate McKinnon
You’d have had to have been living under a rock for the last year to not see one trend that’s exploded where films are concerned, namely, the rise of the rock biopic. The likes of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman have bought the music and legacy of music legends like Queen and Sir Elton John to a whole new audience.
Now it’s the turn of the Fab Four to be honoured in a cinematic capacity, albeit with a twist, as the Fab Two of British film making, Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire) and Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, The Vicar of Dibley) are united for Yesterday, a brand new musical comedy drama inspired by the music of The Beatles.
Former EastEnders star Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a singer songwriter from a sleepy corner of Suffolk who’s struggling to even make a name for himself. At his wit’s end after playing in a small tent attended by a disinterested crowd of less than ten at Latitude Festival, he announces to his childhood friend come road manager Ellie Appleton – played by Mamma Mia 2’s Lily James – that he’s gonna pack it all in to become a teacher like she has.
But a freak global power cut then occurs which results in Jack being hit by a number 52 bus to Lowestoft and him being hospitalised. Upon returning to full health a week or so later (minus two front teeth), his friends give him a brand new guitar as a replacement for his one that got written off in the accident.
And it’s only when he plays – what else? – ‘Yesterday’ on the new guitar, that he realises something is up when none of his mates profess to know of it or indeed, have heard of The Beatles. Cue a frantic but fruitless couple of hours on Google search when he returns to his parents’ home he still lives in that night, where all that can be found are images of dung beetles and Pope John Paul II, and the realisation that his copies of their albums are missing from his shelves before the horrible truth dawns on him: everyone in the world has forgotten John, Paul, George and Ringo – except him.
He immediately spends time frantically trying to remember the words to their vast back catalogue – there’s a running gag involving the lyrics to ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in there – before he resolves to go out around the pubs and clubs circuit of Suffolk again with him passing off the songs as his own new compositions. Well, when in Rome, etc.
It’s not long before his demos of their classic songs – ‘She Loves You’, ‘Hey Jude’, ‘The Long and Winding Road’ – slips into the hand first of one local producer, then another, and another, before suddenly Jack is rocket gaslit into the fast, glamorous and brutal world of the music industry, with untold global superstardom and riches within tantalising reach, in a journey that takes him from Los Angeles to Liverpool, all whilst he finds himself further away from the people he loves and his relationship with Ellie, hopelessly in unrequited love with him, drifting apart as he battles with harbouring one of the biggest rock’n’roll swindles of all time.
Certainly, Mamma Mia is a better reference point where the setup of this film is concerned, in that it’s The Beatles’ music taking centre stage here rather than their story as a band. But their spirit, their ethos and the unshakeable impact they made on music and popular culture 50+ years ago runs through this film, and the choice of songs is so fitting to each moment of the plot (particularly when Jack sings ‘Help’ on the rooftop of a Norfolk seaside hotel for his album launch).
Danny Boyle’s directorial approach also reflects this, with subtle hints to the hazy, almost psychedelic Technicolor world of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Yellow Submarine present in the film’s more fantastical moments like that when Jack is confronted by a video wall of the online and social media reaction to his renditions of their music perceived to be his own as he signs his record deal. This is flower power for the new millennium, baby.
Naturally, being written by Richard Curtis, it’s incredibly funny. Props especially have to go to Ed Sheeran, who takes Jack under his wing as a mentor of sorts and invites him onto the Russian dates of his European tour (cue an obligatory blast of ‘Back in the USSR’), all the while playing a camped up parody of himself and displaying an innate sense of comedy few suspected he had in him (‘Why don’t you call the song ‘Hey Dude’?’, he asks of Jack at one point during a recording session. Quite).
There’s also strong comedic turns from Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal as Jack’s parents (lowkey reminding us just how much we’d love another series of Goodness Gracious Me), and Joel Fry, who has some of the film’s most quotable one liners as Jack’s wildchild stoner best mate and ex-roadie for Michael Kiwanuka, Rocky, in a performance that calls to mind that of Rhys Ifans’ character Spike in Notting Hill twenty years previously.
The casting is one of the strongest elements to this film, from Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of Jack’s acid tongued, Dynasty-esque record label boss Evie, to Himesh himself as Jack and Lily as Ellie. Romantic comedies and the on screen pairings from these are Richard’s forte, and this is undoubtedly another OTP we are getting behind like Will Thacker and Anna Scott or Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy before them.
Their on screen chemistry and banter and the scenes where there is lost love between them is so palpable, so human and so honest that it can’t help to move you. It’s easy for the snottier nosed amongst us to take pot shots at Richard for writing like this but it’s like Pavlov’s dog doing so. For when it’s relatable and believable as he makes it, however bizarre the situations his lead characters get into (remember Bernard and the Genie, anyone?), then it’s a winning charm he deploys.
Without wishing to give away the ending, there’s one scene towards the film’s climax that’s almost so dream like that it was resonating with me hours after I left the cinema. It’s one of those moments leaving you to wonder if it just happened, and yet it somehow works. If nothing else, it’s proof that what didn’t sound like a marriage made in heaven between director and screenwriter so at parallel ends of each other actually matches so harmoniously on screen.
And as the voice of both the lead character and the mouthpiece from which the now wiped world hears the Beatles’ songs again, Himesh is a commanding leading man, accepting of his flaws (‘skinny and yet still round with two teeth missing’) and yet looking and sounding like a superstar in the making. If this becomes the role he is forever associated with in all his future career moves, then this will be no bad thing at all.
With Yesterday, what you are dealing with here is a funny, zany, touching tribute come love letter to one of the greatest rock’n’roll bands of all time, that carries on their spirit and legacy to future generations via a brand new story that will win hearts for years to come. In short: the best film of 2019, no question.