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Yesterday movie review: Danny Boyle delivers his best crowd-pleaser since Slumdog Millionaire; an irresistible love letter to the Beatles

Yesterday
Director – Danny Boyle
Cast – Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal
Rating – 4.5/5

What would a world without the Beatles’ music be like? Would it be different? Would we be different? Would the complete erasure – from hearts, minds and history books – of Let it Be and Hey Jude and, indeed, Yesterday, change our perception of life? Of each other? Of ourselves?

That’s the fantastic premise of Yesterday, the new film by director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis, which asks these questions, and then adds a layer of complexity by proving answers. The world would be a more melancholic place, it suggests; less free-spirited and more proper. Ed Sheeran would still be popular, but, for obvious reasons, there would be no Oasis.

It is the world in which struggling musician Jack Malik wakes up, after getting knocked unconscious in a bus accident, and finding that he is the only person who has any memory of the Fab Four. Yesterday, Jack was a down-on-his-luck singer-songwriter, who’d performed what was likely his final show. He was convinced that his music wasn’t speaking to anyone but himself, and, perhaps his childhood friend and ad-hoc manager, Ellie, played by Lily James. He was in desperate need of a miracle, and then he got one. Today, he’s sitting on a gold mine of greatness, faced with a rather difficult moral conundrum.

After a couple of ridiculously funny scenes in which he begins to accept his new reality – there is a lot of Googling and more than a few incredulous looks – Jack decides to start performing the Beatles’ greatest hits, and pass them off as his own. You don’t really hate him for it; it’s what anyone in his position would have done, especially if they had his natural musical talent.

The first time he plays a Beatles number is for his friends. It’s Yesterday. They’re immediately stunned. “Oh my God, when did you write that?” Ellie asks. “I didn’t write it, Paul McCartney wrote it,” Jack says, suspecting a practical joke, “You know; John, Paul, George and Ringo? The Beatles?” It’s Yesterday, he says in disbelief, “It’s one of the greatest songs ever written!”

“Well, it’s not Coldplay; it’s not Fix You,” an impatient friend responds.

The first hour of Yesterday is impossible to resist, with scene after scene of irrepressible charm. Just as memorable as the one I just mentioned is the another in which Jack plays Let it Be for his parents, and is interrupted by the doorbell and the phone; domesticity getting in the way of his dreams. “Christ, this is Let it Be!” he yells at his mum and dad, played by Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar, “You’re the first people on Earth to hear this song!”

What struck me the most about Yesterday is what a harmonious symphony it is between the frenetic visual style of Boyle’s films, and the unmistakable earnestness of Curtis’ movies. Like McCartney and Lennon, they complement each other, and bring out the best in each other’s work.

In a way, it is another rags-to-riches story of a South Asian man, like Boyle’s most successful film, Slumdog Millionaire. But then, it also has the sweetness of Curtis’ best work, which smoothes some of Boyle’s edginess. Yesterday is the finest film of its kind since perhaps 2013’s Begin Again, and Curtis’ own About Time, a wonderfully inventive romantic-comedy that blends elements of science-fiction that I can imagine even Vladimir Putin enjoying on a rainy Sunday.

It is based on a similar ‘what if’ premise as About Time. And like that criminally under-appreciated film, it has deeper ideas on its mind. “What is the nature of greatness?” it asks. “Can true art change the world?” As it turns out, it can.

A scene towards the end is so unexpected, that I fear I must protect it with the ferocity of a Marvel executive. As with any other scene in the film – and indeed the mechanics of its premise – look closely enough and it crumbles under the scrutiny. But if there ever was a film that could compel you to overlook its flaws and just Let it Be, it’s this one.

Part of the reason why it’s relatively easy to go along with it are the two central performances by newcomer Himesh Patel – an extraordinary discovery by Boyle; on par with Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting or Dev Patel in Slumdog – and the lovely Lily James. Even though the romantic track is less engaging than the fantasy elements, the young actors are gloriously watchable together, and Patel proves himself to be a sort of modern-day equivalent of Hugh Grant. He’s likeable in an inoffensive way, and has that often ignored ability to ground some of the more unbelievable aspects of the story in a relatable reality. This is absolutely necessary, because it’s very easy to lose the audience with high-concept stories such as this, as we saw in the recent Isn’t it Romantic.

Jack didn’t have to be a brown person; and there is something very race-neutral about him, which makes Boyle’s decision to cast the Indian origin Patel all the more groundbreaking. He simply hired the best man for the role, and not, as history has conditioned us into expecting, the best white man for the role.

Films like Yesterday are getting rarer by the year, especially in a theatrical setting – you’d normally find something like this on Netflix. The music in it is, as expected, staggering; but if you ever find yourself in times of trouble, you can count on the film to be a saviour as well.

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