Yesterday is a movie full of existential questions: What if the Beatles never happened? What if nobody knew their songs? Would people still fall in love without “Eight Days a Week” to show them how? Would people feel sorry for themselves without “For No One” or “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”? And what if we heard their songs now for the first time? And, most importantly: What if some charmless guitar-slinging douchebag just happened to show up one day with 100 or so of the greatest songs ever written?
It’s a movie that turns these existential queries into a Fab Four-themed rom-com, written by the British titan of the genre Richard Curtis, who’s made the claim that “the Beatles have been the most important thing in my life.” He bends the premise into a straight-down-the-middle love story where a woman spends the whole movie begging for some attention from a guy way below her league. The plot is basically, “I’m just a Sexy Sadie, standing in front of a Hey Jude, asking him to And I Love Her.”
“It’s not like a musical,” director Danny Boyle told Rolling Stone’s David Browne. “You’re not just covering the Beatles’ songs but recovering them from the dustbin of memory and re-presenting them to the world.” Imagine: An adult in 2019 thinking it’s necessary to rescue the Beatles from “the dustbin of memory.” But that’s the idea behind Yesterday.
Saving the Beatles from obscurity is a long and dotty Hollywood tradition. One of the Seventies’ most hyped flicks: The Bee Gees making a movie version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring themselves as the band and Peter Frampton as Billy Shears. “Kids today don’t know the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper,” Robin Gibb explained in 1977. “You see, there is no such thing as the Beatles. They don’t exist as a band and never performed Sgt. Pepper live, in any case. When ours comes out it will be, in effect, as if theirs never existed.”
Spoiler: Robin Gibb was slightly wrong about this.
People really thought this way in the Seventies, just as they do now. Hollywood gets frightful at the prospect of “kids today” forgetting the Beatles, who have never been in the slightest danger of being forgotten, least of all by kids, and whose music pimps itself better than anyone else has ever pimped it. So can a Beatles fan believe in Yesterday? Not surprisingly, it comes down to the music. The movie depends on the songs to carry the weight, and they deliver plenty of charm and emotion, even in the inferior remakes here. It’s a more enjoyable movie than the Bee Gees’ Sgt. Pepper, if only because it doesn’t have Steve Martin crooning “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
Yesterday is the story of a sad sack named Jack (Hamish Patel), who gets hit by a bus and wakes up in a world where nobody knows about the Fabs except him. So he passes the songs off as his own, leading to fame and fortune. Nobody understands him except his lovesick manager Ellie, who keeps throwing herself at him until she’s got blisters on her fingers. (Ellie is played by the effervescent Lily James, a.k.a. Lady Rose on Downton Abbey, a.k.a. the young Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.) She’s slightly too good for Jack, the way Paul McCartney was slightly too good for Denny Laine.
We are not talking about a Black Mirror episode here — there’s no attempt to have fun with the Twilight Zone possibilities. There’s no humor about the “butterfly effect” in erasing the Beatles from the world they changed. It’s a parallel universe where Coldplay and Neutral Milk Hotel exist without the Fabs, and where all the men have longish haircuts that would have been unthinkable before the mop tops came along. As British critic Dorian Lynskey noted, “‘A world without the Beatles is a world that’s infinitely worse,’ says one character, in a film where a world without the Beatles is almost exactly the same.”
The unfixed hole at the heart of Yesterday is the leading man, or lack thereof. Jack doesn’t have the charm, humor or charisma of Neil Aspinall, much less the Beatles. It’s hard to tell if Patel (famous from the British soap EastEnders) is an awful actor or it’s just a drearily conceived part, but as George put it so eloquently in A Hard Day’s Night, he’s a drag, a well-known drag. Jack’s only likeable quality is that he’s into the Pixies (he has their poster on his wall) and wears a Fratellis T-shirt. Honestly, the idea of a world where nobody knows the Beatles is nowhere near as surreal as a world where people remember the Fratellis. (Note: I love the Fratellis, and could sing their 2006 U.K. hit “Chelsea Dagger” for you right now.)
Yesterday would have been a much livelier tale if Ellie were the one with the guitar and Jack were her dour, no-fun manager. She has more of the Beatles’ spark. There’s a scene where Ellie joins him in the studio, banging her tambourine, singing along, and it’s an electric moment — ah yes, a rock group, people making music together. Then the moment ends, and Yesterday turns back into the continuing story of the grumpy dude with an acoustic guitar. But it continues the weirdest and most noxious trend in the nouveau breed of rock flicks, like A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Dirt: there is never the slightest suggestion that female musicians exist. The idea just never comes up. (In A Star Is Born, when Gaga sleeps under a Carole King album cover, it’s a shock because Carole is the only other female presence in the movie who listens to music, much less performs it.)
Ed Sheeran gets the funniest moment, where he gives Jack notes on a song and convinces him to change it to “Hey Dude” — the movie could have used a lot more of that irreverent cheek. Ed is easily the film’s most enjoyable presence, willing to mock himself. There’s a scene where he banters on the plane with a roadie — “You might be right, enjoy the flight.” That’s an arcane in-joke for Swifties, based on Ed and Taylor’s bedtime texts. (“Like you said, Ed.” “That’s okay, Tay.”) It stands out because it’s one of the few moments where 21st century pop is acknowledged at all. (And it gives the pop girls in the theater a chance to one-up their know-it-all dads.) Kate McKinnon is hilarious hamming it up as an industry shark — the equivalent of Victor Spinetti in the Beatles’ flicks.
If you’re a hard-line pedantic Beatleologist, actively looking for things to hate, you won’t find any Bohemian Rhapsody-style factual gaffes to cluck over. (I say that as someone who actively enjoyed the errors in BoRhap — they were the comic highlights of the movie.) The closest thing is when Jack visits Liverpool to see the grave of Eleanor Rigby, a grave none of the Beatles ever visited or knew existed. It wasn’t until the Eighties anyone noticed there was a real-life Eleanor Rigby buried near Liverpool. When Paul wrote the song, he just made the name up. (Still, the grave does exist, and Paul recalls sneaking into that churchyard to party with John, so it’s a legit coincidence.)
Yesterday barely presents any of the songs in full, as if they felt we’d get bored after a verse or two. It takes nearly half the movie to get to any George songs, to the point where you start worrying they forgot George was in the band; when Jack visits L.A., we get snippets of “Here Comes The Sun” and “Something.” (But not George’s ode to L.A., “Blue Jay Way.”) The idea of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” as a solo folkie showcase is just absurd — the song is designed for hormonally crazed lunatics to scream together. The only singer in history to get away with a solo vocal on “I Want To Hold Your Hand” is Al Green, and no, Hamish Patel is not quite in Reverend Al’s league. At the very end of the movie, we get one complete song in its original Beatle performance. By then, you’re so hungry to hear the whole band, you want to stay for the credits.
But nothing about Jack’s rise to fame makes sense, really. He plays “Back in the U.S.S.R.” in Moscow without changing a word. (Fun fact: The Ukraine and Russia are no longer the same country! Thousands of people have been killed fighting over this!) There are no teenage girls in his audience, even though teenage girls invented the Beatles and everything halfway cool ever since. For a prototypical Beatle fan in 2019, just look to Emma Gonzalez, the Florida teen who became a gun-control (and LGBTQ) activist last year. She’s a Ringo stan who loves to wear her Fabs shirt in TV interviews and wrote on Twitter, “I feel like Beatles songs were made to be sung by powerful women.” Like so many fans, yesterday and today, she was only waiting for this moment to arise.
It never even enters Jack’s mind to use these songs to court women, which is weird because John, Paul, George and Ringo never made any effort to pretend that wasn’t their prime motivation. “Michelle” is a ditty Paul wrote in his teens for the specific purpose of impressing art-school girls at Liverpool parties by pretending he was French. As he says in the bio Many Years From Now, “Me trying to be enigmatic to make girls think, ‘Who’s that very interesting French guy over in the corner?'” But to Jack, it’s just another song title on just another Post-It on his wall.
For the Beatles, their music was all about communicating with women, either in their lives or in their audience. As Paul told Beatle scholar Mark Lewisohn in 1987, “At the time we were 18, 19, whatever, so you’re talking to all girls who are 17. We were quite conscious of that. We wrote for our market. We knew that if we wrote a song called ‘Thank You Girl’ that a lot of the girls who wrote us fan letters would take it as a genuine thank you.” That’s why he and John tried to load their songs with pronouns. “We were aware that that happened when you sang to an audience. So ‘From Me to You,’ ‘Please Please Me,’ ‘She Loves You.’ Personal pronouns. We always used to do that.”
What Paul couldn’t have imagined — nobody could have, nobody did — is that all these years later, people all over the world would hear themselves in those songs. Or more to the point: We would hear ourselves in these songs. To me, that’s the most beautiful, mysterious and disturbing part of the Beatles story — the way they just kept getting bigger and bigger after they broke up, to the point where they’re much more famous and beloved today than they were in the Sixties. The world kept dreaming the Beatles, long after the boys in the band thought the dream was over. The ex-Beatles found this baffling, even infuriating, but they had to live in a world that was madly in love with the Beatles, the way we all do.
Yesterday is set in a world where that love story supposedly never happened — yet the songs keep reminding you why the story never ends. As a great man or four once sang, it’s a love that lasts forever. It’s a love that has no past.