On first mention, the movie Yesterday has an intriguing premise: a washed up musician wakes up after an accident and learns that only he remembers the Beatles and their extensive repertoire. It’s intriguing because it fully encapsulates the feeling women often experience when talking to men about rock music: they are the ultimate authority, the only authority, and if you’re a woman, you likely don’t know what you’re talking about. Please listen to his half-drunk ramble about the sanctity of “Let It Be,” and you’ll be better because of it.
Unfortunately, Yesterday isn’t an extended metaphor about being that guy at the party; it’s more or less a rom-com in an underdeveloped universe where the woman love interest (Ellie Appleton, portrayed by Lily James) is hopelessly devoted to a guy who lacks total personality beyond a Killers poster in his room at his parents house and self-deprecative commentary tethered to a career he doesn’t really deserve. It is essentially fanfiction written by and for adult men who aren’t the market for fanfiction—and it has none of the fun of a teen girl’s WATTPAD post. The best part, the distracting bit, is the Beatles soundtrack and the inclusion of a morose Ed Sheeran.
Yesterday centers around a struggling Suffolk musician named Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). One night, hours after a lackluster performance inside a tiny tent at an outdoor festival and moments after announcing his career in music is over, a worldwide power outage leaves the planet in total darkness for a few short seconds. In that time, Malik is struck by a bus driving in the opposite direction. When he leaves the hospital, and his friends throw him a “Welcome Back” party for surviving his injuries, they present him with a new guitar. He decides to knight the instrument with a soft rendition of the Beatles’s “Yesterday,” and his friends begin to weep. He thinks it’s some elaborate joke before realizing his new reality: he’s entered a world where Ed Sheeran, Coldplay, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Stereophonics exist, but not the Beatles, Coca Cola, Oasis, cigarettes, or Harry Potter.
Malik, in his desire to become a famous rock star of loose morals, performs Beatles songs and passes them off as his own. With the help of Sheeran (are A&Rs, tastemakers, and bloggers also nonexistent in this universe? How is Ed the first one to discover him?), Jack becomes “the world’s greatest singer/songwriter,” and Sheeran is supportive yet bummed to finally meet someone who is “better” than he is (my guy?? He literally says that in the movie.) Eventually, Malik is confronted with two people who also remember the Beatles—it was always statistically improbable that he would be the only one, so I was awaiting this predictable reveal since the very beginning—and they applaud him for keeping the music of the Beatles alive. One woman says, “A world without the Beatles is a world that is infinitely worse,” which is a romantic idea, but not a totally true one. Maybe it works for her, Malik, and the other Beatles-rememberer, but for everyone else, the world is exactly the same.
Then, of course, is the big twist, because no movie post-Avengers: Endgame, post-Detective Pikachu is complete without a gratuitous surprise, the cheap Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-ing of blockbuster films. The two people who remember the Beatles hand Malik a piece of paper when he’s at his most depressive, which leads him to the home of John Lennon. (How did they find him? Why were they so dedicated to the Beatles, too?) In this universe, Lennon is alive, 78 years old, living alone, and happy in a home on the coast of England with a large dog. He speaks with peculiar poetic wisdom that is almost superhuman, the kind of dialogue fanfiction writers may envision from our artistic heroes. Everything Lennon says is correct, beautiful, simple. He jokes about Malik’s state but is kind, forthcoming, and offers him simple advice: tell the truth, and tell the woman you love that you love her. (In his case, his best friend/manager/roadie whose been inexplicably in love with him for 10 years and who is extremely too good for him. I wrote “Dear lord, what does Lily James see in him?” multiple times in my notes.)
The inclusion of an aging Lennon is a silly choice, but a profound one: it is the first and only instance where this alternative universe feels unique and full, distinct from the one Malik resided in before the accident. By not diving deep into the science fiction of this new world, Yesterday underserves its audience and its thesis. If the trailer begs us to envision a world without the Beatles, why go the rom-com route and not show us, truly, what a world without the Beatles would be like? Or is that reality not as devastating as Beatlemaniacs would have you think?
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Director Danny Boyle said Yesterday is “not like a musical. You’re not just covering the Beatles’ songs but recovering them from the dustbin of memory and re-presenting them to the world.” I wonder if he thinks the Beatles aren’t the ever-present cultural marker that they are, but it’s much more likely that he’s worried kids just don’t know their Beatles like they do their arithmetic. If that’s the case, Yesterday’s purpose is needlessly condescending to both young people and Beatles fans. Two months ago, I saw the biggest girl group on the planet perform, K-Pop act BLACKPINK, and in the middle of their set, Rosé covered “Let It Be” for a generation of music fans coming into their own identities and tastes. It was only four years ago that Kanye West and Rihanna collaborated with Paul McCartney on “FourFiveSeconds.” The Beatles don’t need to be re-presented to the world. They’ve never left. And in the music lexicon, they never will. That is how canons work.
At the end of the film, a gentleman seated next to me asked if I was a reporter. He told me that many years ago, he wrote a screenplay that was nearly identical to the film we just watched, and wondered if it got into the right (or, in his case, wrong) hands. The premise, while outlandish, doesn’t seem that challenging to conceptualize—but Yesterday proves that it is difficult to realize. If only it were more... fun.