Yesterday (Boyle, 2019)

The premise of Yesterday works in some respects. Imagining a world without a particular cultural commodity, with all its associated prestige and iconography, can yield intriguing implications—especially if a few select people still know such a commodity once existed. The route Yesterday takes is the easiest: what if one of those people assumed creatorship of the commodity and reaped the benefits? What if they amassed a fortune and cemented a legacy without doing anything themselves? The situation could have been explored in other ways, like determining the other things that would inexplicably disappear from existence because they were somehow tied to that commodity’s success. Take one brick away from the structure and see just how badly it’s destabilized. Unfortunately, this is one pathway the film doesn’t venture down. Yes, other famous commodities disappear after the protagonist is hit by a bus during a global blackout that wipes The Beatles from everyone’s memories, like Coca Cola and Oasis. Such absences, however, are only used for comedic effect (“Can you get me Coke?” “I’m sorry?”). The existential implications of removing these properties are brushed away, and this Beatle-less world is somehow nearly the same as the one in which the legendary band existed. Inexplicably so. Unbelievably so.

The greater flaw in this design is even more obvious: the protagonist becomes the greatest singer-songwriter in the modern world on the back of songs that were written in the 1960s. If the lyrics can endure, the arrangements are still very much of their time, and yet they’re kept the same for Jack Malik’s repertoire. The film posits that a band from yesteryear could be just as big in the distant future, and I can’t help but feel that it’s wishful thinking. Even in these nostalgia-driven times, we are still moved most by the concerns of the now, replete as this “now” is with advanced technology and pressing global issues like the climate crisis. We also make our music differently. The production values of today distinctly characterizes it as twenty-first century. Even so-called troubadours like Ed Sheeran utilize modern production values so that their music can still be tied to this era, making it most palatable to the ears of modern youth.

And so I don’t buy the idea that Beatlemania could be repeated today if it had never happened in the 1960s. It flies in the face of an important aspect of music itself: that it is deeply entrenched in the period it was written. In that period’s concerns and politics and triumphs and horrors. The film seems to shrug this aspect off, like when Sheeran asks Malik why he sings of the USSR when it was before his time and Malik has no convincing reply to give him. It’s just part of his act’s novelty, the film seems to say. The Beatles wrote it, and Malik is simply resuscitating their work, dated references and all. But the importance of this novelty to The Beatles’ enduring success is never given deeper analysis. The film revolves around the given fact that The Beatles are timeless without understanding that this is something of a fallacy—that the perception of their timelessness is also intricately connected to the imperial phase of their career and the era in which it was fostered. And by not understanding this it cannot argue its case convincingly.

Watching a film that doesn’t have solid ground to stand on is exhausting, especially when the premise calls for 90 minutes at most, and you’re given nearly 120. So as much as Himesh Patel has a nice singing voice and Lily James continues to be a delightful screen presence, there wasn’t enough here for me to enjoy. It’s overly simplistic to the point of utter banality.