Lily James & Himesh Patel Imagine There’s No Beatles
Starring Himesh Patel & Lily James
Directed by Danny Boyle
A struggling musician gets his big break when a freak accident bestows him with a cache of musical gold in this magical mystery tour from the director of Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting and 127 Hours.
In Yesterday, Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, a young Indian-British singer-songwriter who’s been slogging it out for years, singing his tunes on street corners, in coffeehouses and hotel bars. With his dreams of success quietly fading away, he finally tells his faithful manager, Ellie (Lily James), his schoolmate chum who’s now a schoolteacher, that he’s had enough.
“It’ll take a miracle” to make his career happen now, Jack says. “We’re at the end of our long and winding road.”
That very night, Jack gets his miracle. He collides with a bus while riding his bicycle home—at the very moment of a mysterious, 12-second worldwide blackout, a glitch in the global power grid. When he wakes up in the hospital, he’s mostly OK, but the world is a bit askew: Nobody except him remembers a group called the Beatles, or any of their songs.
Can you imagine? A world that never knew “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? That never swooned to “Something”? Or grooved to “I Saw Her Standing There”?
The blackout has somehow given the entire planet a very specific, very weird musical amnesia—and Jack apparently dodged the Beatles bullet because he was conked out by the collision. It’s as if all those songs by John, Paul, George and Ringo never existed. (There are a few other quirks, too, which Jack will eventually discover, involving a certain globally popular soft drink, the tobacco industry and at least one character in one blockbuster book-to-movie franchise.)
Jack realizes the Fab Four’s vast catalog of already-hits could be a surefire way to reignite his sputtering career. So he starts performing Beatles’ tunes, passing them off as his own, and becomes a megastar.
And no one’s the wiser…at least for a while.
British director Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, which won eight Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Directing) in 2009, was about another young man—from the slums of Mumbai, India—with an improbable, life-changing, rags-to-riches story. In Yesterday, Boyle sets up a fanciful, almost fairytale-like scenario, inventively digs into one of richest musical treasure troves of all time, and shapes it around a crowd-pleasing story fashioned by screenwriter Richard Curtis, the maestro of British rom-coms (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Love Actually, About Time).
As Jack’s fame increases to mind-boggling proportions, performing Beatles songs like “Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “All You Need is Love” and passing them off as his own, so does his guilt as a fraud and an imposter. He gets a major-label recording deal, relocates from Liverpool to L.A., tours with Ed Sheeran (who plays himself) and gets a steely manager (Kate McKinnon) who promises him the “great and glorious poisoned chalice of money and fame.”
Will Jack come clean about the songs that have made him a superstar? Will he change “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude,” at Ed Sheeran’s suggestion? Will he finally realize that there’s someone back in England who’s loved him all these years—and that he’s loved her, too?
The “rom” in this rom-com is in good hands with Patel (a former star of the long-running BBC soap EastEnders, here making his movie debut) and James, whose numerous credits include TV’s Downton Abbey and the movies Cinderella, Baby Driver and Mama Mia! Here We Go Again. They make a great, believable couple, and you yearn for the “long and winding road” to lead their characters into a happy intersection.
The “com” is in ample supply as well. Joel Fry provides a lot of chuckles as Rocky, Jack’s unkempt but enthusiastic roadie. McKinnon brings her precision, chameleon-like Saturday Night Live satirical chops to her role as an icily efficient music-biz insider whose words both soothe and slice. A mega-marketing meeting finds Jack’s ideas for album titles and designs, based on actual Beatles releases, somewhat lacking—the “White Album” has “diversity issues,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is “a lot of words” and Abbey Road is “just a road.”
But Himesh can really sing, putting his capable voice to some 15 Beatles classics, and the movie versions of these familiar tunes—and the way the film shows modern-day audiences going gaga over them—are testaments to the timelessness of the iconic music. The words of “In My Life,” from 1965, reach deep into Ellie’s heart, no matter that they’re more than half a century old. Kids in Russia rock out to “Back in the U.S.S.R.” like it was written just for them. When Jack belts out a punk-rock version of “Help!” from a rooftop stage, the pulsating audience below doesn’t know he’s miserable and singing it as a plea for help—just like John Lennon was when he wrote it.
It’s hard to imagine a world that didn’t grow up with the Beatles, but Yesterday lovingly, respectfully resets the stage of pop culture and does just that, giving us something sweet and charming and fun in exchange—this adorable Brit-centric romantic fantasy romp set in a rock ’n’ roll alt-reality where their music lives anew, life goes on—ob-la-di, ob-la-da—and maybe all you need is love, after all.
In theaters June 28, 2019