When the trailer for the new Danny Boyle film Yesterday was first released I had questions. This trailer was a pretty straightforward bit of advertising that largely existed to explain the film’s high concept: that the film was about a British street musician named Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) who bumps his head and when he wakes up he finds that through some sort of magic The Beatles have been wiped from this history books, appear to have never existed, and are not remembered by anyone except Jack, prompting him to recreate their songs and start a major music career as the ostensible author of all these incredibly catchy pop tunes that no one has heard before. Not a terrible idea for a movie in theory, but the more I thought about that high concept the more it started to bug me. As I mulled it over some questions occurred to me, questions like:
- If The Beatles never existed how can you envision a pop culture landscape where likes of Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, and Pulp still be around?
- How would someone, even a trained musician, be able to fully recreate an artist’s catalog from scratch? Even a superfan isn’t necessarily going to know every word of “The Long and Winding Road” after all.
- Would these song still be marketable and impressive if they’re divorced from their historical context and what made them innovative and new when they were released?
In short the movie had a lot to cover but that’s okay, it’s being made by smart people and I looked forward to seeing how they were going to wrestle with these things. Unfortunately I must say that I found a lot of their answers kind of inadequate, that is when they bothered to give answers at all. On the issue of how he was able to recreate the songs from memory for example, they do give lip service to the idea, but ultimately don’t wrestle with it. He’s basically able to come up with the lyrics off screen for the most part and is able to come up with the rest of them after a quick trip to Liverpool in order to reconnect with Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane. But whatever, that’s mostly just a nitpick. The much bigger question is how the movie expects us to believe that, given how important and revolutionary it seems to think The Beatles were, that a pop culture landscape where they never existed would basically be unchanged from what we’re experiencing now. There’s a throwaway joke about Oasis also not existing given how derivative they were, but you’d think the most popular rock band of all time would have more of a butterfly effect than that, and outside of that one little joke the movie basically never questions how popular music managed to just keep on chugging without the influence of the fab four. The movie also basically just takes it as a given that because the songs are so good they would automatically be just as popular today as they were in the 60s, that the kids who’ve already experienced The Backstreet Boys would still lose their shit for “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” that someone whose listened to Radiohead’s “OK Computer” would still pop their monocle when they heard “Strawberry Fields Forever.” That’s not to say the possibility of these songs to resonate would not exist in the modern day but you’d think “Back in the USSR” would maybe mean something a little different in 2019 than it did in 1968.
So, with the movie more or less refusing to engage with these ideas I actually found myself asking even more questions while watching it, questions like:
- Would these songs sound different if made using modern production techniques and without the input of George Martin? Could Ringo be replaced by an 808?
- Would a 28 year old singing “she was just seventeen/You know what I mean” get you canceled in a song written in 2019?
- Would “Happiness is a Warm Gun” fly in an era where there are regular mass shootings?
- What does it mean for a guy with roots in the Indian subcontinent to take song from a band that rather famously appropriated a whole lot of ideas and music from that region? Is turnabout fair play?
- Would the psychedelic imagery throughout The Beatles music connect with to a generation of kids who are going up with Molly and Adderall instead of LSD?
- Shouldn’t he be releasing all this material gradually over time instead of dumping every damn Beatles song ever all at one time.
- Further if you’re releasing The Beatles catalog from scratch, would it make more sense to introduce audiences to the simpler earlier stuff first or would it make more sense to jump into the more striking and experimental late sixties stuff even if that stuff perhaps has more signposts of its era?
- Is Mark David Chapman loose in this world? Would our hero have to worry about him showing up almost karmicly?
- For that matter did the Manson killings happen in this world given that there was no Helter Skelter to misinterpret? If not, would the fact that that wasn’t weighing on the national psyche when it did allow for flower power to go on for longer… or would flower power have even existed in the first place without The Beatles?
Those all seem like fairly interesting directions that the film could have gone down, and the film manages to address basically none of them. Of all the major musical quandaries that the movie’s premise brings up, the only one it seems to be even a little interested in tackling with any kind of depth is the ethics of essentially plagiarizing other people’s works and becoming famous off of them. To me that’s probably the most inconsequential of all the questions they could have gotten into, firstly because it’s basically irrelevant to the fact that he needs to reintroduce an old band to the modern era. Malick have faced basically the same dilemma if he had woken up to find that it was Drake or Imagine Dragons that had been stricken from the record by this magic. Secondly, it’s kind of the wrong question to be asking simply because, well, stealing from people who seem to no longer exist is kind of a victimless crime.
Ultimately, I think the issue at the center of all of this is that I seem to have put a lot more thought into this concept than the people making the actual movie are. On some level I maybe should have expected that. The film was written by a guy named Richard Curtis, who’s famous for writing Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually . He’s a writer of romantic comedies, not alternate history fanfics, and Yesterday actually is more of a romcom than the trailers make it out to be. Jack Malick as it turns out has a manager named Ellie (Lily James) with whom he goes back years and their relationship is totally platonic… can’t imagine if that’s going to change over the course of the movie. The two leads actually have quite a bit of chemistry even though their arc is very predictable and Curtis still seems to have a penchant for slightly creepy grand gestures. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who will be happy that this is more of a light rom-com than it is a detailed alternate history fanfic with astute observations about pop culture history. Obviously I’m not one of those people and while this movie passes the time and isn’t unpleasant to watch it still seems like quite the missed opportunity to me.
**1/2 out of Five