Warning: This review alludes to elements of the plot, including versions of the film not produced.
In a parallel universe a 78-year-old John Lennon reports a burglary to the police. The thieves have taken the TV, some old books, and some papers from his bedroom drawer. They have no intrinsic value he tells the police, they’re just sentimental doodles from his teenage years – song lyrics and sheet music.
Later, the old Liverpudlian will hear news the young singer/songwriter who shot to meteoric fame with the series of catchy popular songs, brimming with pathos, melancholy and artistic arrangements, the likes of which the world has never heard, has been attacked by his old school friend George Harrison.
Harrison, he learns, climbed over the wall of the new star’s mansion and tried to stab him to death. Lennon realises that the attack was motivated by the suspicion but this new singer has plagiarised their childhood material. Could the same man be responsible for the theft at his home?
He then watches this dynamic new star perform his songs to millions of people at Wembley Stadium, with a dewy eyed girlfriend waiting in the wings. This is the moment he plots to kill him. He learns that the singer has taken up residence at the Dakota building in New York City. He flies there, buys a copy of the album containing his life’s work, and asks the young boy to sign it. ‘is that all you want?’ asked the boy. ‘Yes thank you,’ says Lennon.
The singer and his girlfriend Ellie then depart for the studio to record new tracks for their forthcoming Double Fantasy album. When they return hours later, Lennon is waiting with a fully loaded.22 calibre hand gun. As the couple walk to the Dakota from the limousine parked on the street, Lennon empties six bullets into the singer, killing him instantly. A camera crew records the ranting old man as he’s dragged into the back of a police vehicle, the 78-year-old Liverpudlian screaming ‘it could’ve been me, it should’ve been me’.
The pictures are beamed across the world. In England, on the BBC, an eighty year old former postman, Paul McCartney, watches impassively. ‘It’s too bad,’ he tells his wife Joan, ‘that kid had something special.’ Roll end credits.
Sadly this is not a synopsis of Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle’s movie. For one thing, the plot described above is too rich in historic irony, too interesting, too dark, and shows too much cynicism on the part of the main protagonist, to stand any chance of been produced. What you ask, was made instead? The answer is the blandest, most lazy treatment of the conceit imaginable.
Himesh Patel is an average singer-songwriter, busker and pub musician, who gets hit by a bus during the worldwide blackout and wakes up in a world without the Beatles. He can remember their songs however, so chooses to pass off their back catalogue as his own, and becomes a worldwide star. In the process he neglects his old manager and childhood friend Ellie, who’s secretly in love with him, and by the time he finds out, he’s on the cusp of fame, so must decide between it and a life with her. She is a boring maths teacher you see, so the two are incompatible.
Anyone who’s ever seen a Richard Curtis movie Will know where this goes – mainly nowhere. There’s lots of interesting ideas buried in Curtis’s first draft screenplay – the notion of there being other people who can remember the Beatles for example, so may be resentful that some young, moderately talented upstart has hijacked the catalogue. But this being a Richard Curtis movie, they of course bear him no ill will, and are in fact delighted but he’s brought the songs back into the world.
When Patel meets John Lennon, now alive and painting on the coast, somewhere in England, he finds a quiet man who’s content with his lack of success, and philosophical, as opposed to someone whose talent transcended mere existence, and is bitter the less talented Patel has somehow managed to write his material and found fame with it as he never did.
Consequently, despite the lies that underpins the plot, Patel never faces any sanction or blame back from his decision to commit the ultimate act of plagiarism. Curtis isn’t interested in punishing his characters, or teasing out the possibilities of his fantasy premise; genuinely interesting questions like what would a world without the Beatles sound like? It surely wouldn’t the world like the one depicted here, where popular music is exactly the same, just with this giant hole in its history.
Those who like the Richard Curtis formula – a likeable middle-class protagonist, a burgeoning romance, all peppered with whimsy, will enjoy Yesterday and its substandard reprise of pop’s greatest hits. There’s even an obnoxiously American to enjoy, or rather hate, in the form of Kate McKinnon, who should’ve known better. Anyone looking for a movie with a bit of wit, intrigue, or drama, however, can do what Danny Boyle did, and not show up for this one.