If there’s one thing that I admire about the marketing for Yesterday the most, its that its one of the few major studio films in recent years that is sold entirely on its premise. Not a franchise, not an IP, not even any real stars (although it doesn’t hurt to be helmed by one of cinema’s greatest living directors). It’s a great concept- what would the world be like without The Beatles? What’s interesting about the film is that the concept is more of a backdrop; there’s probably a lot of stories that could be told in the wake of The Beatles being erased from history, but this is just about one specific instance.
Struggling songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) has been constantly set back as his career seems to be going no where, despite the continued support of his longtime manager Ellie (Lily James). After Jack is determined to give up his dreams, a freak accident leaves him brutally injured, but more significantly, he’s now living in a world where the iconic music of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr no longer exists.
The Beatles have been explored many times onscreen before, so its interesting to see that the film uses their music as the catalyst for the film’s story, but doesn’t necessarily claim to be an analysis of the work in particular. Compared to something like Across the Universe, which has a clear correlation to the sociopolitical themes that The Beatles stimulated, or Nowhere Boy, which explores the origin of the iconic music without utilizing it specifically, Yesterday is more about the large gap of culture that The Beatles inhabited. The Beatles, like Coca-Cola or Harry Potter (which are both directly referenced in the film) have transcended what they initially represented and taken on their own legacy. I don’t think any one approach is necessarily better than the other, but Yesterday is more about the idea of The Beatles than The Beatles themselves.
That being said, there’s also a lot to be said about how we analyze cultural legacy- which is precisely what Yesterday suggests. As Jack begins to reintroduce the music to his friends and family, he’s desperate to explain the impact of the music, but is consistently cut off or ignored (one scene in particular draws some great laughs as Jack’s family interrupts his first rendition of “Let it Be”). He wants to cram years of analysis and impact into a first rendition, but that’s not why The Beatles were first appreciated- it’s because their music is fun and catchy. This is why Jack’s career takes off, and why the music is (as we now see) able to translate into any period in history.
The idea of simply enjoying something without demanding people understand its deeper meanings clearly resonates with director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis. While we gets glimpses at how the world may have been impacted by the lack of The Beatles, its never fully explored, nor are the other gaps in history fully explained. This purposeful vagueness is intentional, because the story is really Jack’s, as he looks for fulfillment as an artist. Success is all relative to him, and at the end of the day his relationship with Ellie is the only thing he’s actually searching for. She is his career, and when his career ends up surpassing her, he questions what his intentions really are.
For a filmmaker as obsessed with process as much as Danny Boyle is, Yesterday seems simple in a creative way. Boyle has always had a knack for the intimate, be it the feverish nightclubs of Trainspotting, the walk and talk in Steve Jobs, the interrogation scenes in Slumdog Millionaire, or the confined spaceship in Sunshine. All these films have one thing in common: what if we took a huge event and looked at it from the singular location, and not as an epic? What if Steve Jobs’s life was condensed into a series of conversations? What if the most important space mission in history was viewed from the perspective of outsiders who might never see their families again? What if an inspirational true story was structured around a man telling his life’s events to a suspicious prison guard? Like Boyle’s other films, Yesterday has the premise of an epic, but is mostly centered around conversations.
Being penned by Richard Curtis, these are often really fun conversations. They’re never particularly deep, and the extent to which the film actually engages with the idea of who art belongs to and our role to share it are rather slim, focusing more on a series of recurring gags. Many of these amusing side characters seem to be one-note, but that’s because Ellie is the only thing that grounds Jack, and the entire process seems to be about finding what the meaning of his success would be without her. The film’s best and boldest scene (in which Jack encounters a familiar figure who puts his life in perspective) is ultimately about just that- what is success, when do you know if you’ve made it, and who is this really all for?
As a continuation of this, I’ve rarely been more aware that I’m watching a future star than I was watching Himesh Patel in this film. There’s a complete authenticity to his performance, and the character is written specifically to reflect his status as a well meaning guy with no malicious intentions, who’s often oblivious to the ramifications of his actions (be it ignoring his long smitten manager or taking credit for all of the works by the greatest music group in history). Watching Patel work through the creative process of trying to remember the lyrics to a song is often uproarious but also strikes a chord with anyone who’s ever tried to sing in their car- its a blend of satire and sincerity that the entire film emulates.
There’s a lot to unpack in Yesterday, and while its fun to analyze the film’s themes and how it’s constructed, we also enjoy the film in the same way Jack’s family may have enjoyed their introduction to “Let it Be”- it’s charming on a visceral and emotional level, and maybe doesn’t require the interrogation on an artistic level. I can criticize the repetitive nature of some scenes, the length, or the many questions that arise from the premise (why cigarettes not exist in a Beatles-free world), but like the Beatles, I’m judging Yesterday on the sum of its parts. Grade: B