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Film Review: Imagine There’s No Beatles

YesterdayIn the rom-com Yesterday, our world is one in which Fab Four never existed. Can one man bring their music back to life?

Jack Malik is the epitome of a struggling musician. Slender and scruffy, he plays his mediocre compositions on deserted boardwalks and in quiet cafés, with few besides his manager/roadie/wannabe girlfriend Ellie to cheer him on. After performing in an all-but-empty tent at an otherwise rollicking music fest, he’s convinced he’ll never make it big. Dejectedly, he informs Ellie he intends to give up the strings for good. “Miracles happen!” she argues, urging him to stay true to his craft.

Accidents happen, too—and Jack has a serious one mere minutes later, when his bicycle is broadsided by a bus during a freak worldwide power outage. When he awakens, he’s in an alternative universe, one in which the Beatles have never existed. The realization washes over him when he plays a few bars of the Lennon-McCartney masterpiece “Yesterday” for friends, and an awed Ellie asks, “When did you write that?”

Suddenly, our hero (played by a delightful Himesh Patel) is faced with an irresistible opportunity: to present the Beatles’ music to the world as his own. He feverishly writes down all the lyrics he can recall—did Eleanor Rigby darn her socks?— and returns to the music scene with renewed vigor. Soon he’s giving Ed Sheeran (played by himself) an inferiority complex and falling into the clutches of a greedy manager (a hilariously understated Kate McKinnon), who correctly senses Jack is working on the greatest album the world has ever known.

For all he gains, though, Jack is at a loss. Throughout his life, no one except Ellie has believed in him. Now everyone worships him—but he no longer believes in himself. It’s a plot that offers up existential questions about the value of fame and the nature of truth, art and legacy. Is Jack a hero for preserving the Beatles’ music, or a fraud for letting people assume he wrote it all? How free should he feel to change his heroes’ work, from album titles to lyrics? It is, after all, still 2019 in this alternative universe, an age when artist’s careers are forged in a crucible of marketing meetings.

Patel has a pleasing voice, and it would have been great to hear both more of the Beatles’ music (I’m guessing the filmmakers were held to a meager ration of these) and Sheeran’s own compositions. Jack’s journey takes a lot of time to cover, and certain characters are underdeveloped as a result. Ellie, in particular, feels like little more than a standard-issue rom-com character, and it’s disappointing to see her conform to a one-dimensional cliché.

The ending, too, is pat, but sweet. Jack discovers that all you need is, well, I’ll let you guess. But all in all, for the music, creativity, and gentle laughs, you’ll be glad you took this magical mystery tour.

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