Director Danny Boyle is back after an underwhelming sequel to the seminal work of his career: Trainspotting. This time, he’s paired with veteran screenwriter Richard Curtis, best known for penning classic, cutesy romantic comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Notting Hill. True to form, Curtis’s newest story is primarily a rom-com, but its fascinating premise is more akin to the fantastical what-ifs of About Time than the traditional intimacies of Love Actually. Curtis poses the pop culture-busting question: what if we never had The Beatles?
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a singer/songwriter in Lowestoft, a small town in Suffolk, England. Plainly put, he’s going nowhere. He and his best friend/manager, Ellie Appleton (Lily James), tour around the county playing empty bars, vacant inns, and unknown and unattended tent stages at otherwise prominent festivals. His lack of success means he’s always on the brink of quitting, but no matter how underwhelming his original “Summer Song” really is, Ellie won’t let him give up on his dreams of being a renowned musician. That probably sounds cliché, but outside of its premise, Yesterday is about as cliché as rom-coms get.
Sometimes that means we’re shoulders deep in the coquettish friendship—which is obviously unspoken love from the get-go—between Jack and Ellie (whose names are as cute together as the two stars), and it’s an utter romantic delight. Other times it means we’re flanked by yet another one of the film’s seemingly endless and uninspired montages. It can’t be stressed enough how desperately Yesterday relies on sterile montage to drive its plot forward. Cue: a montage of Ellie looking wearily around empty venues while Jack plays his songs to no one with a miserly look on his face.
In a fit of frustration, he finally decides to quit. On his bike ride home, a 12-second worldwide power outage strikes, the globe goes dark, and Jack and his guitar are hit by a car. He spends some time recovering in the hospital with Ellie by his side. She mostly just jokes about his newly missing two front teeth and makes us wish we were in the hospital bed getting teased. Once he gets out, Jack and Ellie go meet up with some friends, and she gifts him a sleek, sunset acoustic guitar. Naturally, Ellie and company want him to play a song. So, he plays Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.” They’re disarmed by how incredible Jack’s new song is, and Jack is disarmed by how far they’re willing to take this joke about not knowing who The Beatles are.
He eventually understands—via montage, of course—that they weren’t kidding at all. The power outage somehow placed him in an alternate timeline in which The Beatles never existed (nor did Coca Cola, Harry Potter, or cigarettes). Coming to the realization that there’s no record of any Beatles song anywhere, he immediately plunges into his memory to conjure up every lyric, melody, and chord he can remember and writes them down song-by-song.
Knowing he can frame every Beatles song as his own, he announces his return to music, records a demo album, gets Ed Sheeran’s (Ed Sheeran) attention and investment, begrudgingly recruits a lovably stupid assistant named Rocky (Joel Fry), and embarks on a journey through flash fame and fortune as the man solely responsible for writing and performing the lion’s share of the Beatles catalogue (he’s forgotten some).
The conflict at the heart of the film is the idea that by choosing stardom, Jack must abandon Ellie. His new professional, leachy, cutthroat, power-hungry manager Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) offers him the “poisonous chalice of money and fame,” he drinks from it, and she needs him out in L.A. for marketing meetings, Late Show appearances, and recording sessions. But Ellie is a schoolteacher back in Suffolk, and she has no intention on leaving the life she loves to ride the tail of Jack’s celebrity.
Jack miserably goes through the motions of all the surface-level shit required of him as a pop star. He sits through all-hands-on-deck meetings where top executives and their puppets schmooze him, laugh gratuitously at his non-jokes, and inform him that market research has revealed his suggested album titles are terrible (they’re all Beatles album titles). But he can’t escape feeling like a phony or missing Ellie. He is “a valued cog in a well-oiled rock machine,” and the absurdity of his situation combined with the constant spotlight and each discography-altering suggestion makes him reconsider his pursuit. For example, in a self-aware bit about the pandering nature of popular songwriting today, Sheeran makes him change “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.” It’s one of Sheeran’s only worthwhile moments.
Why Ed Sheeran is in this movie—much less “Shape of You,” which, next to Beatles music, sounds truly awful—for more than 30 seconds is beyond me. He’s open to making fun of himself (specifically, his rapping), which I can appreciate, but he’s terribly unnatural on screen. His expressions range from straight face to slightly happier straight face and nothing more. Not to mention, the underlying implication that he is one of the greatest living songwriters heavily outweighs and conceptually clashes with the rampant music industry commentary that critiques the false image of stars and the overwrought modern songwriting process, which requires no less than five studio-employed writers to crank out lyrics while the musician is asked to shut up and play the hits. But Sheeran isn’t Yesterday’s only major misstep.
The arrangements are almost all acoustic renditions, which makes sense for the story, but when they aren’t acoustic, they’re either forgettable or bad (the worst being a pop-punk rendition of “Help!”), anything but imaginative, unlike those in Across the Universe. The film deserves some credit for its visual references to Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night and sneaky aural references, like the build to the car crash that mirrors the build from “A Day in the Life,” or the use of that iconic “Strawberry Fields Forever” Mellotron organ in the score. But, outside of that and the significance of a rooftop concert, it really misses the boat on capitalizing on its subject matter.
Where a great version of the same movie might’ve explored what a world without the most popular, successful, and influential band of all-time would actually look and sound like (the only trickle-down music effect is that Oasis doesn’t exist), Yesterday is more interested in the tiring rom-com trope of chasing a woman to an airport/train station to share true feelings, forcing stale wisdom about love and life down our throats, drowning us in hackneyed foreshadowing (“This isn’t a big story that ends with a miracle!”), and, of course, montages. It also seems a bit silly that those he’s told about his situation never express any curiosity about their metaphysical conundrum. Then again, this isn’t Donnie Darko.
Its most glaring mistake is the inherent flaw in the geographic conflict between Jack and Ellie. A pop star is not forced to live anywhere, and the biggest pop star in the world is definitely not forced to live in L.A. They speak to each other like Jack’s stardom hinders their love, but in reality, their problem is solved by merely doing long distance until he finishes his initial round of marketing meetings and press interviews. Hell, he could just fly back and forth every week if he really needed to be in L.A. so often. The subplot of his impromptu pilgrimage to Liverpool—which is neither a financial nor logistical problem—is overwhelming proof that he doesn’t need to choose one or the other.
Yet, in all of its blunders and oversights, Yesterday is still among the summer’s tastier theatrical fare because of the joy and gratitude it inspires twofold. First off, Lily James is in her most debilitatingly gorgeous, smiley, and charming form as Ellie, and we get to flirt with her vicariously through Patel for at least half the movie. Secondly—and much more importantly—we get to listen to a lot of Beatles songs. Patel’s voice is good, and I’m sure he and James had a blast singing Beatles songs for months, but it doesn’t really matter who’s singing. The spirit of John, Paul, George, and Ringo exists in another realm. It is alive and well, surging through our souls every time we hear one of their brilliant tunes. And we hear a lot of them in Yesterday.
The experience inspires wonder and thanksgiving on a supreme level—the kind that renders everything else insignificant and just makes you happy to be alive where and when you are. Every song reminds us just how thoroughly unparalleled The Beatles remain to this day. Yesterday is cultural verification that if we existed in a world without The Beatles, and we were aware of it, all we’d want is to have them back. When you walk away from the theater after the movie’s over, you won’t be thinking about the movie at all. The quality of a film will have never seemed less important. You’ll forget what happened minutes after you leave because you’ll just be thinking about the fab four.
Soon, you’ll be downloading The Beatles anthology series, watching interviews with the band, disappearing into Pepperland, daydreaming about the film’s twist (and boy, is there is a twist), reminiscing on your fondest Beatles memories, and hankering for “Eleanor Rigby,” “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “I’m Looking Through You,” or any one of the other 200+ masterpieces. Attached to this stirred gratitude is a genuine invasion of graceful mourning, too. What might’ve been in store for John Lennon or George Harrison if they were still alive today? Would they all be touring together? What wonderful songs would we have as a result? Would we have gotten even one more Beatles single, or better, another album?
What would the world be like without The Beatles? It would be dreadful. We wouldn’t know it would be dreadful because we can’t say it ever existed in the first place, but that’s precisely what induces dread. Though you wouldn’t learn so from the movie, a world without The Beatles is likely a world without most of our favorite musicians. A world without The Beatles is so tangentially disparate from ours, it isn’t even unrecognizable. It’s a blank slate. Perhaps that’s why Curtis and Boyle abstained from trying to envision it. Regardless, their exercise in imagination is enough to ensure that a world without The Beatles is an “infinitely worse place.”