There’s a lot that’s mind-bendingly corny about director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis’s ‘Yesterday’, a peppy ‘what-if?’ musical comedy that imagines a world in which the Beatles never existed. Your ability to spend time in its big-hearted, dad-joke world might lie with your tolerance for Ed Sheeran making fun of himself: If you can cope with those sort of inventions along with the film’s hit-and-miss gag rate and its happy-clappy view of modern Britain, then its endless sugar rush of Beatles covers and endearing performances from the likes of Lily James and newcomer Himesh Patel make it hard not to like. It also has a strange cameo, bold and not what you expect, and maybe the best screen jokes so far about Google searches. (Type ‘John Paul George Ringo’ in a Beatles-less universe and what do you get? ‘Pope John Paul II’ of course.)
It all spins on a goofy high concept that blossoms in an average corner of coastal Suffolk. Jack (Himesh Patel, a real discovery) is a struggling 27-year-old singer-songwriter sick of playing to thin crowds. But his bright-eyed old friend and manager Ellie (James) is supportive – and clearly in love with him. The years of musical irrelevance end when there’s an electricity blackout across the globe, a jolt from the storytelling gods so absurd that you go with it. Jack is knocked off his bicycle and wakes in hospital to the gradual realisation that not a single other soul in the world knows who the Beatles are.
The most powerful moment in this energetic, fun film (although one more compelling in the set-up than the unfolding) comes when Jack leaves hospital and strums ‘Yesterday’ to his friends. Boyle gives us shots of strangers going about their business and we feel the universal power of a brilliant song. Not every Beatles tune we hear lands with such power. It’s impossible; there are so many. Jack becomes a global star: The trick of ‘The Truman Show’ is inverted, and Jack is the only person in on the joke. But it’s not so funny when the record industry, personified by Jack’s careerist new manager (Kate McKinnon, very broad), prepares to suck him up and spit him out.
A more satirical, challenging film would spin this whole premise in loopier, more testing directions. Would Ed Sheeran even exist if there were no Beatles? Would the UK look and feel exactly as it does now (or at least as it does in every Richard Curtis film)? Does this movie not oddly suggest that the Beatles were irrelevant: not so influential after all, considering all we lack is their songs and nothing of the culture they inspired?
Yesterday doesn’t dig this deep; it’s a fun game, a romantic conundrum and a loopy jukebox movie, with only brief hints of something darker when Jack begins to regret allowing his lie to run away with him and ends up further than ever from his old friend Ellie, representative of everything good, pure and constant in his life. Yes, there’s a classic Richard Curtis romance running alongside the theatrics – but like the best Beatles songs, ‘Yesterday’ also leaves us with a lingering sense of melancholy after the melody fades. In the end, though, it’s the music that carries it: How can you resist such a full-throated, playful celebration of some of the best songs ever recorded? You don't.