Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a muso who’s never made it, is knocked off his bike during a worldwide blackout – and wakes up with his front teeth missing in a world which at first seems exactly as normal, only it turns out that the Beatles never existed. Also, in throwaway gags, Pepsi is the only Cola on the market and no one has ever heard of cigarettes. That last twist would have a massive effect on the world that screenwriter Richard Curtis – working from a story he wrote with Jack Barth – isn’t fussed about, just as there’s no room here for the sort of speculation found in Ian R. MacLeod’s novella ‘Snodgrass’ about the effect of subtracting the Beatles from popular culture. Off the top of my head – would the fashions, hairstyles, drug habits, entertainment choices, religious beliefs, and even true crime stories of 2019 be exactly as they are without the Fab Four? No Beatles might mean no Charles Manson – and certainly would mean no Monkees, which in turn would mean no Easy Rider, no New Hollywood of the 1970s.
It’s almost a character point about Jack’s selfishness that he googles Oasis and finds they don’t exist either (‘figures’) and leaves it at that, with two other mcguffin folk who remember the real world prompting him to wonder what happened to at least one of your actual Beatles. Curtis can’t imagine (a John Lennon word, of course) anyone would be more interested in the vast consequences of fundamentally altering the universe than in whether or not Jack finally gets together with his longterm friend/manager Ellie (Lily James). The selfishness of rom-com protagonists is a genre given, and Curtis occasionally lets that show in interesting ways. Here, it means Patel has to work hard to make Jack sympathetic when he’s such a git to the girl who likes him. My guess is that I’m not the only audience member who’d sign up for Team Gavin … Gavin (Alexander Arnold) being the nice guy recording engineer Ellie hooks up with while Jack is off in Hollywood being bigged up in satirical scenes by traditionally viperish manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon).
The business about Jack pretending to have written all the Beatles songs and being elevated suddenly to superstardom on that basis is the real meat of the film – picking up perhaps on the joke in Peggy Sue Got Married where Kathleen Turner gives Nicolas Cage a hit song and he tells her it ought to go ‘She Loves You (Ooh Ooh Ooh)’ (a joke repeated when Jack is advised that ‘Hey Dude’ is a better title than ‘Hey Jude’). It’s smart enough to work in tiny gags like including ‘Revolution No. 9’ on the post-it note song titles list Jack makes before systematically reproducing the catalogue, while having trouble remembering the lyrics of Eleanor Rigby. In an unexpected turn, Ed Sheeran is genuinely affecting as himself, genially supportive of Jack (whom he takes on as a support band), subtly suspicious of his sudden songwriting prowess, and losing an instant song contest with sad dignity when Jack pops out for ten minutes and comes back with ‘The Long and Winding Road’ (‘you are Mozart and I am Salieri,’ he shrugs). Danny Boyle directs with a lot of attack, staging decent as-live musical interludes – though you get the impression that if Jack woke up in a world without Richard Lester, the director would be more upset – that get round the issue of the Beatles’ success not being just down to their songs (they weren’t a solo act, for a start) and the most astonishing thing in their story being the rapid progression from Yeh Yeh Yeh to Sgt Pepper or the White Album. The rougher edges are filed off, as usual – it’s established that Jack has to visit Liverpool before he can pretend to write ‘Penny Lane’ or ‘Strawberry Fields’, but not that he has to have the experiences which prompted ‘Norwegian Wood’ (though his mammoth case of imposter syndrome does inform his stab at ‘Help’) … none of the Beatles songs that might now be problematic (‘Run for Your Life’ comes to mind) are featured.
You have to wonder whether an aged, puzzled, missed-out-on-something-in-life Mark David Chapman is going to turn up in Great Yarmouth with a gun at the open-air concert finale … but, let’s face it, that’s not how Richard Curtis scripts end.