Beatles Movie ‘Yesterday': The Best and Worst Parts
Warning: spoilers ahead.
Yesterday, the latest major movie with a Beatles-inspired plot, is in theaters now. Maybe you've already seen it, maybe you've seen the widely circulated trailer, or maybe you've seen the many Twitter memes about it. Either way, you probably know about its fantastical premise: a worldwide blackout erases the existence of The Beatles except for in the memory of one person, who happens to be a struggling singer/songwriter. (And, spoiler: two other people remember the band too.) As far as absurdly far-fetched fan fiction goes, this premise is actually pretty compelling. The Beatles' real-life story sometimes feels like a fantasy of its own. They practically started their career as the biggest band in the world, and reinvented pop music at almost every turn despite only making albums for a total of seven years (during which twelve were released in addition to movies and lots of non-album singles and more). They worked at an astonishing rate, were rivaled by almost none of their peers, and they continue to influence new musicians all the time. Even 50 years later, their music holds up as some of the greatest pop music ever written. So it's fun to imagine what the world would be like today if they never existed.
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire) and writer Richard Curtis (Love Actually) have fun with the premise, but they ultimately don't end up getting very deep with it. Everything ends a little too cleanly, and there are way too many questions left unanswered. If you want to enjoy it -- and I do think it's a very enjoyable, lighthearted, family-friendly summer movie -- you have to refrain from overthinking it, and you kind of have to check your music nerd-dom at the door. That's a lot to ask of us music nerds, but it's the best advice I can give to anyone who's about to see this highly intriguing yet highly flawed movie.
Yesterday fails in a lot of ways but it succeeds in ways too, so here's a list that breaks down the best and worst parts of the movie. (Warning: many more spoilers ahead.)
THE BEST PARTS OF YESTERDAY
When The Beatles' Music Disappears, So Does "Wonderwall."
Unlike in Back to the Future, the entire future doesn’t change if one thing from the past changes in Yesterday. When Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) realizes he lives in a universe where The Beatles never existed, he still has Radiohead and Killers posters on his wall. Ed Sheeran and Coldplay still exist. If The Beatles never existed, are we really expected to believe all of these other acts still went on to exist in exactly the same way they did in a post-Beatles world? Yesterday’s answer to that question is “yes,” except for one very funny example. "Wonderwall," the song Jack sings in high school that convinces his friend-turned-manager-turned-love-interest Ellie (Lily James) that Jack is talented, has disappeared too, and so have its creators, Oasis. It’s a little deserved -- as Saint Etienne member, music journalist, and author Bob Stanley once wrote, the way John Lennon sings "sun-shine" on "Rain" was "the complete blueprint for Oasis" -- but it’s sort of a cheap shot; it's not like Radiohead and Coldplay weren't pulling from the Fab Four too. Still, it's one of a few rewarding moments in Yesterday for those of us who like a good music roast.
The Beatles Are No Coldplay, Someone Inadvertently Says
Before Jack realizes that he's the only one who knows The Beatles, he tries out a new guitar by playing the song "Yesterday" for his friends. They all love it, but they all assume he wrote it, which leaves Jack confused and prompts him to say it's one of the greatest songs ever written. Thinking he's just gotten a little too egotistical, one of his friends says, "It's not Coldplay. It's not 'Fix You,'" It's a little silly, but it's the kind of joke you love to hate... or hate to love. It's so intentionally cringe-inducing that it's not even worth cringing and better just to laugh. It also makes a pretty good point: if, all of a sudden, you heard The Beatles' music for the very first time, with no context, performed by a person who is not a Beatle, you would probably not immediately drop your favorite songs and declare these songs to be better. The Beatles' music still feels timeless, but context is still crucial to giving them the full praise they deserve. Even in this highly fantastical movie, the part where Jack is hailed as the greatest songwriter of his generation before his debut album is even out is one of Yesterday's least likely scenarios. The Beatles were innovative and timeless but you can still tell they were a 1960s band and it seems unlikely that masses of music fans in 2019 would instantly embrace their songs. It's more likely to assume they'd say it's no Coldplay (if Coldplay actually did still exist as the movie claims they did, that is).
Ed Sheeran Is Truly Shocked To Learn He Is Not The Greatest Songwriter Of All Time
Another silly, lighthearted, cringeworthy-but-not-really-cringeworthy moment is when Game of Thrones star Ed Sheeran (playing himself this time) challenges Jack to a songwriting competition, Jack plays "The Long and Winding Road," and Ed Sheeran, highly impressed by the song, says in near-disbelief, "I was always told someone would come along who'd be better than me." I assume the real Ed Sheeran is smart enough to never say something like that, but kudos to him for being able to laugh at himself and letting this fictionalized Ed Sheeran come across as so densely arrogant. Easy target, but a fun one.
The Beatles Are Stuck In Your Head Now
As with recent classic rock movies Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, any plot criticism goes out the window when you get reminded of how much you love these songs, that -- unlike all but three people in Yesterday -- are embedded into your DNA. Himesh Patel did all the singing himself, and he's good. I won't be surprised if -- like with 2007's Across the Universe -- Yesterday's versions of The Beatles classics become popular amongst younger crowds and help introduce new generations to The Beatles. (His solo performance of "Yesterday" from the post-blackout scene and his garage rock-ish take on "Help!" from the rooftop concert scene are both enjoyable enough to give them a second listen on the soundtrack.) Even if you never watch Yesterday or listen to Himesh's versions again, though, watching the movie once will put tons of Beatles songs in your head for days and probably send you reaching for your record collection or their Spotify page. At least that's what happened to me, and it's always nice to get a reminder of how great these songs truly are.
John Lennon Lives!
Actually, the John Lennon scene is kind of pointless, but hey, it's nice to think of an alternate timeline where he made it to old age.
THE WORST PARTS OF YESTERDAY
It Seems Like There Will Be Conflict... But There Isn't
The premise of a world where just one person knows The Beatles is interesting, but not interesting enough for 116 minutes. There has to be a twist somewhere, and there are a few times where it seems like that's about to happen... until it doesn't. First, Jack is on The Late Late Show with James Corden, and Corden (playing himself) says he has two men backstage who claim the songs are theirs. Did real-life Paul and Ringo figure out what's going on? Nope, it was just a dream. Later, during a press conference, one person yells "who's your favorite: John, Paul, George, or Ringo?" and another person holds up a yellow submarine. The two people confront Jack after the conference. Are they going to expose him? Is this it for Jack Malik? Nope, they are somehow the only two other people who remember The Beatles and all they do is thank him for keeping the songs alive because they can't sing. Near the end, Jack outs himself as a fraud to a packed crowd at Wembley Stadium. Is there backlash? Legal troubles? Anything? No. Jack just (proves this movie was made in our modern times and) releases the songs for free online and his life goes back to normal. It's too smooth, too clean, and -- even for a movie with this far-fetched premise -- too unrealistic.
It's Rockist In A Very Tired Way
When Jack has a big meeting with his team about the album, the head of marketing (Lamorne Morris, aka Winston from New Girl) throws out Jack's silly album title ideas like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and White Album, and decides to call it One Man Only, because Jack somehow made all these brilliant songs without a team of professional songwriters and there's no "featuring Cardi B or Justin Bieber." Obviously part of the joke is that Jack did not write any of these songs, but you also get the sense that Yesterday is trying to suggest there's something refreshing about songs written like they were back in the Good Old Days... especially when we the audience know these songs are indeed from back in the day. It feels like fuel for the "at least they play their own instruments!" types, and it furthers the idea that there's somehow something more authentic about a rock band like The Beatles than a rapper like Cardi B. (It's also worth noting that some of The Beatles' best songs early on, like covers of "Twist and Shout" and "Please Mr. Postman," were written by groups of songwriters. So this is neither a new phenomenon nor one that proves anything about talent or authenticity.) Similar to what I said above about Coldplay, it is more likely that today's music fans would prefer Cardi B to "Help!" than instantly crown One Man Only the "greatest album of all time."
The Beatles' Chemistry Is Absent From Yesterday
There are two moments in Yesterday when the movie briefly reminds you of the importance of the context of The Beatles' career and the chemistry of the members: when Jack plays his friends "Yesterday" and they love it but one says it's no Coldplay, and when Jack plays his parents "Let It Be" and they are unfazed. But it doesn't last. Jack quickly becomes an overnight success and he is hailed as a songwriting god. What Yesterday quickly loses sight of, is that The Beatles were more than songwriting. They were the clash of personalities from two (and sometimes three) songwriting geniuses who at times wanted to kill each other. They were George Martin's essential production and Geoff Emerick's groundbreaking engineering. They were the band who could write the sugar-sweet "Can't Buy Me Love" and then the head-trip of "Tomorrow Never Knows" just two years later. They were four gorgeous singing voices that sounded even more gorgeous in harmony. For The Beatles, the possibilities of what music and art could sound like and look like and feel like were virtually endless. And it mattered that -- on a mainstream level -- The Beatles were often the first or second musicians to popularize their many ideas. Boyle and Curtis try to boil that all down to the chord progressions and the lyrics alone, and suggest that those two things would rule the world in any version of history. It's a touching idea that The Beatles' music is so genuinely impactful that it would affect the lives of millions in any scenario, but it's a flimsy, half-baked concept for a movie.
The Love Story
Because Yesterday for some reason needs to also be a romantic comedy, there's a love story, and it is terrible. It doesn't even come up at all until Jack is about to fly to Los Angeles to become a star, and then Ellie -- who has been by his side for half their lives but has no romantic history with Jack -- asks Jack why none of his love songs are about her. (Before Jack can say "because they were all written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison," his family pressures him to return to his goodbye party.) Jack leaves for LA as planned, eventually flies to Liverpool to try to remember the lyrics to "Strawberry Fields Forever," "Penny Lane," and "Eleanor Rigby," and it's there that Ellie comes to meet him and they almost hook up but she tells him she doesn't want to be a one-night stand. Jack flies back to LA and Ellie starts dating Gavin (Alexander Arnold), who produced Jack's first demo CD. When Jack meets 78-year-old John Lennon (who, in this version of history, was never a famous musician), John -- who knows nothing about Jack's life -- gives Jack this advice: "Tell the girl you love that you love her and tell the truth to everyone whenever you can." Then, obviously, Jack does the big Wembley Stadium concert with Ed Sheeran, reveals he's a fraud, and tells Ellie (and all of Wembley Stadium) that he loves her. So, to recap, Jack -- who never showed any romantic feelings towards Ellie until she asked him about it, and even then continued to prioritize his fraudulent career over her -- all of a sudden tells Ellie he loves her for the world to see. Ellie is embarrassed for about 30 seconds, then she ends it with Gavin (who gladly and immediately supports her decision, and quickly meets someone else), and ends up with Jack. The whole thing is almost more far-fetched than the idea that The Beatles could disappear, and -- especially for a movie in 2019 -- Boyle and Curtis could have really used Ellie as more than a prop in the Jack Malik story.
Ed Sheeran Suggests That Jack Change "Hey Jude" To "Hey Dude," And Jack Does It