February 23, 2020

A World without the Beatles

“The art of the counterfactual is a tricky one, and it takes all sorts. If you are Philip Roth, you plow your deep dread into the thought of Franklin D. Roosevelt being defeated by Charles Lindbergh in the election of 1940, and of Jewish citizens being stigmatized as the enemy within. Such was the dark alternative history dreamed up by Roth in “The Plot Against America,” his novel of 2004. If you are Richard Curtis, the writer of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994) and “Notting Hill” (1999), you have rather different fears. The first is that people in love with one another might not come together as they should. The second and more haunting fear is that the Beatles might never have existed. I mean, imagine there’s no Ringo. It’s too awful to contemplate.

Both possibilities arise in “Yesterday,” which is written by Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle. It stars Himesh Patel as Jack Malik, a young singer-songwriter who plies his trade in Suffolk, on the east coast of England. The plying doesn’t draw much of a crowd—four or five people, generally, most of whom are his pals. One of them is also his manager, Ellie Appleton (Lily James), whose nature suits the sweetness of her name, and who believes, inexplicably, in his talent. Jack is less confident of musical success, protesting, “It’d take a miracle.” To which Ellie replies, “Miracles happen.” As I say, the script is by Richard Curtis.

One night, as Jack bikes home to his parents (Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal), there is a global power outage. It lasts a mere twelve seconds, but, in that time, the shape of history is slightly bent and, once the lights come back on, nobody in the world knows who the Beatles are or were. Nobody, that is, apart from Jack, plus a couple of other bewildered souls. He missed the twelve seconds, having spent them sailing through the air after being hit by a bus. (Needless to say, I completely trust the science behind this hypothesis.) Jack, a bit of a loser but no fool, soon realizes that he may be on to a good thing, and starts to perform the Beatles’ greatest songs, which, to all appearances, he composes on the spot. When he sings “Yesterday,” his friends agree that it’s beautiful, although, as one of them argues, “it’s not Coldplay.” Thanks for that.”

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