What if the Beatles never existed? Hokey concept disappoints in 'Yesterday'

Scrambled eggs —

Oh, my baby, how I love your legs ... 

As song lyrics go, they don’t exactly tug at the heartstrings. But try:

 Yesterday —

All my troubles seemed so far away,

Now it looks as though they’re here to stay ...

Now we’re getting somewhere — somewhere closer to the lost-love lament that would become the most covered song (1,600 recorded versions) in history.

Director Danny Boyle’s “Yesterday” yarn posits a sudden freak global power outage in which struggling songwriter Jack Malik gets hit by a bus and wakes up in an alternate timeline where the Beatles and their music never existed. He’s the sole person on Earth who remembers them.




Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon.

Rating: PG-13 for suggestive content and language.

If there were an Oscar category for Most Absurd Fantasy Premise, this would be a shoo-in winner, rivaled only by “Saturday Night Live’s immortal “What If Eleanor Roosevelt Could Fly?” in the hypothetical realm.

There’s no effort to explain or make the Big Electromagnetic Bang even vaguely credible.

But there it is. And there’s newcomer Himesh Patel as hapless hero Jack, who dazzles friends with “his” amazing new songs, such as “Yesterday” and “Let It Be.” Soon enough, he gets discovered by British rocker Ed Sheeran (playing himself) and invited to be the opening act on Sheeran’s forthcoming world tour.

Ah, but as his popularity soars, conscience-stricken Jack must agonize about the meaning of life, money and fame, and the possibility of losing sweet Ellie (Lily James of “Mamma Mia 2” fame), his best friend and staunchest supporter since childhood.

Among the more amusing moments along the way is Jack’s incredulity and unsuccessful Googling of “John, Paul, George, Ringo.” The closest thing it pops up is “Pope John Paul II.” After playing “Hey Jude” for the first time, someone suggests changing its title to the more accessible “Hey Dude.”

During a much-interrupted private performance of “Let It Be” for his parents, his mother refers to the song as “Leave It Be.”

Director Boyle’s cutting-edge canon includes “Trainspotting” (1996), “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) and “127 Hours” (2010). But this entry (and Richard Curtis’ screenplay) is disappointing. It wants to celebrate the Beatles as not just pop-culture icons but also as the quartet who changed everything, with revolutionary music about peace and love and the sheer ecstatic pleasure of being young. But intertwining the hokey sci-fi plot and romance with a love letter to the music is problematic, to say the least.

Patel does his best — I wish there were more of his “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and other less famous Beatle tunes that showcase the freshness and clarity of his voice and his huge, round, surprised eyes. James’ Ellie is very cute (though the soapy stuff she’s given in the script gets sillier). Kate McKinnon as Sheeran's agent, who badgers Jack to sign on to her label, is annoyingly over the top.

FYI, a final factoid or two: Paul McCartney says he originally got/heard the song in a dream at the Wimpole Street home of his then-girlfriend Jane Asher in 1965: “When I went down for breakfast, I sang it about the breakfast menu” — using “scrambled eggs” as a temporary title to hold the music and phrasing together. It was the first solo song recorded by a Beatle without the other members, played and sung by McCartney alone on acoustic guitar.

It took some serious persuading by producer George Martin to add the string quartet and make music history with the resulting stylistic hybrid, sometimes called “baroque chamber pop.”

All their previous collaborative material was credited to Lennon/McCartney, and Paul’s plea to attribute the song solely to himself was shot down by manager Brian Epstein, who said: "Whatever we do, we are not splitting up The Beatles."

Ironically, “Yesterday” helped do just that. It rankled with McCartney as a factor in the group’s breakup five years later. As recently as 2000, when he asked Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono to change the credit to McCartney/Lennon in The Beatles Anthology, she said no.

(What a jerk that Yoko was and remains.)

But I can’t help thinking it might've been better — and more fun — had it eschewed the alternate time-space continuum and just chronicled the real-life electromagnetic evolution of a tune called “Scrambled Eggs.” 

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

Subscribe to BarryParis.com RSS Feed