The Beatles were a once in a generation cultural phenomenon. They weren’t just ‘another pop group’. Their simple but somehow unforgettable melodies and lyrics led them to be sung, copied and covered, literally all over the world. In a sense it is hard to imagine popular culture without them, but what if they had never existed?
That is the brilliant conceit/hook that Danny Boyle hangs his new comedy upon. And, because the screenplay is by Richard Curtis, it has to be a soppy rom-com at the same time. But more of that anon.
Jack Malik (Brit TV actor Himesh Patel in a career-launching performance) is a wannabe muso. Despite having some native talent (and thankfully Patel has a pretty good voice in real life), Jack is stuck at the very bottom rung playing to three dullards and a lager lout in divey pubs. Like all musos, he cannot actually give it up, as to do so, would be to give up on his very raison d’etre. He even has a sort of ‘manager’ called Ellie (the ubiquitous Lily James) who keeps on booking the gigs even in the face of world-sized audience indifference. It is no spoiler to say that things change for Jack when an ‘altered timeline’ kicks and he is given a chance to coast on the genius of Lennon and McCartney. (Incidentally, this is The Beatles of the wacky fab four mop top era, not the psychedelic drug band they morphed into.)
The premise has so much going for it. Well exploited in places are the fun possibilities of imagining that the commonplace things that you know, are unknown to everybody else. Mixing up quirky high concepts with love stories is a balancing act that Curtis has pulled off before (see the rather charming About Time for example), and both Patel and James are likeable screen presences, with chemistry.
However, the end result is that for the rom-com to work, we should care about the long-denied love much more. As usual with Curtis, so much of the engine of his story is in the idea of thwarted love or misrecognised attachment, or just the very-English idea that emotionally retarded men can never really say what they want until it is too late. How much you like the film will depend on your tolerance for this trope. As Lennon said, life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans; perhaps in a funny way this applies to this film too.