I always imagined a scenario where I went back in time to forestall atrocious pop songs like “Playground in My Mind” and “Run Joey Run” from entering the musical canon. Danny Boyle — the Oscar-winning director of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire — went in another direction. He envisioned a world devoid of the joy of the Beatles and refused to let it be. (See what I did there?)
Frustrated wannabe musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is about to throw in the towel and go back to teaching when he’s struck by a bus and falls into a golden slumber.
He wakes to a world deprived of the boys from Liverpool (and less-relevantly of Coke, cigarettes, and Harry Potter, as well), but that’s not apparent until his devoted childhood friend and manager Ellie, wonderfully played by Lily James (“Baby Driver,” “Darkest Hour”), gifts him a replacement guitar on which he mesmerizes friends with “Yesterday,” a Beatles classic they’re unfamiliar with.
From there he runs through several more of the group’s hits, capturing the attention of musician Ed Sheeran who, for my tastes, has an outsized role here. Sheeran invites Jack to open for him which in turn attracts a big-time Hollywood shark (Kate McKinnon). But on the cusp of international fame he faces an existential crisis: he’s uncomfortable accepting credit for the music and at serious risk of losing Ellie. In other words, once there was a way to get back home, but now he may be in too deep.
In what is handily one of the best films of the year, Patel is brilliant and there’s real chemistry with Lily James; their relationship and his with his parents echo the best of similar pop-driven favorites like Mark Wahlberg’s “Rock Star” and last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Jack’s encounter with John Lennon, who’s living a quiet seaside life, is a bit heavy-handed, but the mysteriously uncredited actor is so spot-on that you can’t help but instead be amazed.
And amazement is really what Boyle and writer Richard Curtis deliver. The Beatles, of course, don’t need to be introduced to audiences. But what we experience here is the same genuine awe that contemporaneous fans must have felt as these lads created hit after magnificent hit.
Rating: 4 Honks