Yesterday Is A Charming, But Empty Look At A World Without The Beatles

Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Do you remember the first time you heard The Beatles? I don’t. For those of us born after the Fab Four’s heyday, their music — and its cultural impact — has become ubiquitous asCoca-Cola. You may not think of “Hey Jude” all that much, but you know all the lyrics when it suddenly plays in a cafe halfway across the universe. But what if the songs we now take for granted had never existed? Would we still respond to the lyrics and melodies John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr wrote and performed nearly 60 years ago?
That’s precisely the plot of Yesterday, which hits theaters on June 28. Directed by Danny Boyle from a story by former The Simpsons writer Jack Barth and a script by Richard Curtis, the film follows Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), an aspiring rock star from the small town of Gorleston-on-Sea in the United Kingdom. His promising childhood rendition of Oasis’ “Wonderwall” has petered out into a dead-end music career. Jack plays to single-digit crowds, and his manager and best friend Ellie (Lily James, who gets to use her Mamma Mia skills) is the only one who still believes he can make it. One night, after a particularly sad turn-out, Jack calls it quits, packs up his guitar and gets on his bike, only to be struck by a bus during a worldwide 12-second power outage. When he wakes up, everything seems normal, minus the loss of his two front teeth.
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Except that, as Jack soon realizes, he’s now the only person on the planet who remembers The Beatles. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime: Armed with an unprecedented catalog of tried and tested pop-rock masterpieces, he can be the one to introduce The Beatles to the world — and take credit for their genius.
It’s a clever and interesting premise, but one that’s wasted on this film, which seems more interested in the emotional stakes of Ellie’s one-sided crush on Jack than grappling with the potentially world-altering consequences of the removal of The Beatles from our timeline. You can’t argue that The Beatles were revolutionary in their approach to music and not show how different the world would be without them. Take Ed Sheeran, who plays himself in the film, and delivers a genuinely funny performance. There is no way in the world that Ed Sheeran as we know him would exist without The Beatles. And yet, there he is, singing “Shape Of You,” to fans in Moscow. (Without spoiling anything, the major potential consequences several other cultural landmarks’ erasure get similarly overlooked.)
Nor does the film address the potential consequences of having these songs come from a person of color, or whether or not dumping them on an audience packaged as one big fat double album, rather than as the product of careful, years-long musical evolution, might diminish their appeal. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” has almost nothing to do with “Paperback Writer,” and even less to do with “Revolution.” They’re emblematic of a fast-paced change in pop music, spearheaded by The Beatles themselves over xxx years.
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Also, few people seem concerned with some of the more troublesome lyrics and themes in the songs, which feels outrageously dated when divorced from their original context. You’re telling me Twitter would not take issue with a grown man singing about a girl who “was just 17, you know what I mean,” as Jack does when he performs “I Saw Her Standing There”?
Instead, the whole thing is treated as an excuse to sing Beatles songs in strange, fish-out-of-water situations — like when Jack plays “Let It Be” to his distracted parents who interrupt the melody every two seconds, or when Ed Sheeran suggests that “Hey Jude,” should really be “Hey Dude.” Those moments are undoubtedly funny — one of the best recurring gags has Jack struggling to remember the notoriously convoluted lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby” — but they feel thin without the added thought experiment examining the real impact of those words.
One point Yesterday emphasizes repeatedly is that the music industry — embodied by an over-sharing Kate McKinnon as an agent who is so thinly developed that I do not actually recall whether her character has a name — is greedy, and quick to stamp out real creativity in its search for the next big thing. Likewise, the technology that was a non-factor when The Beatles were crossing Abbey Road is framed as a genius-stifling distraction. Phones ring and spoil the moment, screens light up at the wrong time — it’s a critique that might be worthwhile if it didn’t come off as pedantic, and a shallow way to get at a more complex issue.
Still, Yesterday is fun to watch. It must have cost a fortune to license this amount of Beatles songs to play in full: “She Loves You,” “Help,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Yesterday,” “Let It Be,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Back In the USSR,” “Obla-Di-Obla-Da,” and “Here Comes The Sun” are all on the setlist, among many others. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder of just how many groundbreaking songs these men produced in their short decade as a band.
Patel has a great voice, and gives a much more charming performance than his one-note role should allow. It’s a shame that the movie boils his relationship with the quippy, cheerful James down to will-they-won’t-they, a storyline that flattens what could have been a truly special, and thought-provoking film into a standard, ultimately unoriginal rom-com.
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