YESTERDAY: Imagine there's no Beatles
* * * (out of four)
I’m not a huge fan of screenwriter Richard Curtis, as I didn’t care for the loose sexuality in “Love, Actually” or “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” But there’s no question the man can write, and “Yesterday” is proof of that.
The new film’s surreal storyline needed just the right touch -- and Curtis, with the help of director Danny Boyle and a first-rate cast, was definitely the man for the job.
British actor Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a struggling singer-songwriter who has a terrible bike accident when the entire globe inexplicably loses power for 12 seconds. When Jack wakes up, he finds himself in an alternate universe where the Beatles never existed. Since he alone remembers their music, Jack becomes an instant star, churning out one soul-stirring tune after another.
I don’t know how Curtis, Boyle & cast pulled it off, but one never questions these plot mechanics for an instant. No doubt it’s partly the ongoing appeal of the incredible songs (“Here Comes the Sun,” “Let It Be,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Hey Jude” -- and many others). But credit must also go to the winsome Patel, who always seems slightly abashed by his sudden fame, and to the wonderful Lily James (“Baby Driver,” “Cinderella”); she plays Jack’s long-suffering manager, who also happens to be carrying an unrequited torch for the young musician.
Patel sings the songs himself, breathing new life into these classics just as Taron Egerton did with Elton John in “Rocketman.” Patel and James are joined in the cast by an excellent Kate McKinnon (as a brash and greedy record exec) and by pop superstar Ed Sheeran as … a slightly jealous Ed Sheeran.
By keying on the love story as well as the music, “Yesterday” gets away with its fantastical idea even as it keeps us glued to Jack’s journey -- which ultimately involves choosing between his career and the woman who’s loved him for years.
Curtis has plenty of snappy, literate dialog, though too often he artificially interrupts important conversations (phone call, door-knock). Ultimately, however, his real triumph is the ending.
With such an odd storyline, there better be a pretty satisfying resolution, and when Curtis pulls it out -- a lovely scene at a seaside home -- well, it’s absolutely spot-on; not only does this provide plot closure, but it’s also a potent statement of the movie’s theme: an aspiring artist might be better off if he never became really famous.
With this film, “Rocketman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and a forthcoming Springsteen-themed feature, film-makers seem to be capitalizing on beloved old musicians who wrote a bunch of really great tunes. Right now, I bet Billy Joel is wondering, “When do I get my movie?”
Frankly, I’m starting to wonder that too.
directed by Danny Boyle
Run time: 116 min.
Rated PG-13 for language