Danny Boyle’s Yesterday is a movie with an ingenious idea that has no clue how to pay off its premise. Working from a script by Richard Curtis, the film takes place in world where no one but the protagonist remembers the music of The Beatles. There are so many interesting directions you could go with this premise as your starting point, and Yesterday ignores all of them in favor of a romance that’s bland and uninspiring. While I typically cringe at critics attempting to provide a new plot to a movie rather than judging the film on its own merits, the wastefulness of Yesterday is undeniable and unavoidable. As you watch the protagonist churn out Beatles songs as his own, you see that Yesterday has no love for The Beatles, their impact, or even music. It’s a story about love and fame, and The Beatles are merely a means to an end. The Fab Four and their music deserve so much better.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter in a small town in England. He has the support of his best friend and manager Ellie (Lily James) and a few other friends, but no one is really interested in hearing his music, and the lack of turnout makes Jack want to hang up his guitar. However, during a worldwide blackout that lasts for twelve seconds, Jack is hit by a bus. When he awakens in the hospital, he soon discovers that he’s the only person who remembers the music of The Beatles. The group has been wiped out of existence, but he knows most of their songs. He decides to pretend like The Beatles’ songs are his own, and as he becomes more successful and famous, he has to live with not only the guilt of his own fraud, but also how he’s ignored Ellie despite her obvious feelings for him.
What makes Yesterday so frustrating is that it doesn’t have much love for The Beatles. Obviously, the movie doesn’t want to waste time showing how different the world would be without their music and settles for a moderate chuckle at the fact that Oasis doesn’t exist either. But the conflict of the movie isn’t Jack struggling with his own art and using The Beatles as a crutch. Jack wants to become famous, but he knows he’s a fraud, and that’s a shallow, uninteresting avenue for your story. It’s basic and obvious and avoids far more interesting questions about what to do when your own art isn’t deemed good enough by the masses. It’s worth noting that The Beatles languished in obscurity for years playing strip clubs before they ascended to fame and fortune. But more than that, their art meant something to them. For Jack, it’s a shortcut, and one that shows he has no artistic passion of his own.
Watching Yesterday, I was reminded of Curtis’ 2013 movie About Time, which also has a fantastical premise to tell a story about what you would do if you could avoid fear of rejection. In About Time, it’s about avoiding rejection in love and in Yesterday, it’s about avoiding rejection in art. But About Time succeeds because the whole movie is about love and how important our relationships are while Yesterday is about fame with a lazy love story tacked on. Ellie doesn’t really get to be a three-dimensional person with her own hopes and aspirations. In fact, she has one of them movie’s worst and most telling moments when she tells Jack he can’t quit music and become a teacher because he’ll use up all his creativity and imagination on his students. Setting aside the apparent travesty of investing in future generations, we all know that someone can’t be a teacher and a creative genius! Just ask Lin-Manuel Miranda. She pines after Jack who’s to self-involved to notice her and rather than deciding to move on, she’s in her mid-30s still wanting to get together with her grade-school chum, which is more sad than romantic.
Because Yesterday is more concerned with Jack’s fame and his romance with Ellie, the music of The Beatles just becomes an easy shortcut to get Jack famous. It’s not like he’s a Beatles superfan who needs to bring their music into the world. The film also wants to convince us that The Beatles’ music is timeless so that a song like “Help!” would be just as popular today as it was in 1965, but then it wants to turn around and treat that same music as nothing more than a collection of catchy tunes. As Jack’s ruthless agent Debra (Kate McKinnon) says about her client, “He’s a product to me,” and Yesterday treats The Beatles’ music the same way. Yesterday if the cinematic equivalent of people whose favorite Beatles album is 1. You could make pretty much the same movie if Jack woke up into a world where only he remembered advertising jingles and became a successful ad executive.
I didn’t hate Yesterday, but I found it constantly disappointing. There are bright spots like McKinnon and Joel Fry, who plays Jack’s good-hearted friend and roadie. And it’s always nice to hear the music of The Beatles. But these are small comforts in a film that never finds the payoffs that would make its premise worthwhile. It’s not a movie about the cost of art or even being oblivious to love. It’s about a fame and getting the girl, and you don’t need The Beatles for that.