The premise for Yesterday, the new film from director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis, is an intriguing musical fantasy. Newcomer Himesh Patel plays Jack, a struggling musician, who gets hit by a bus at the exact moment there is a worldwide power outage. Almost everything is the same when he wakes up, except The Beatles never existed and he is the only one who remembers the band. Desperate for success, Jacks decides to perform Lennon/McCartney tunes and pass them off as his own. This puts him on the cusp of superstardom. Now that I’ve seen the film, I have several questions:
If The Beatles never existed, wouldn’t pop music be indescribably different today? You must be familiar with the concept of time flowing like a river. By slightly changing the past, the effect would be like throwing a pebble into said river. The conceit of Yesterday, however, is like throwing a boulder. In the course of the film, Jack discovers The Rolling Stones exist, but Oasis does not, so the film is somewhat aware of the band’s influence. But without The Beatles, you would not have “Pet Sounds,” the British Invasion, psych rock, and countless other subgenres. You could arguably trace back electronic music all the way back to “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Ed Sheeran is an important character in Yesterday, but without The Beatles, he would be just another geezer with a bad haircut.
Doesn’t music happen in a context? The Beatles were great band, this is true, but they were also in the right time and the right place. Their music only makes sense in the sixties, and Yesterday makes no attempt to explain the evolution from “She Loves You” to “Eleanor Rigby.” It suggests that Beatlemania could happen to anyone, at any time, as long as they were talented enough. How would someone like Jack become popular without Ed Sullivan, or legions of shrieking Boomers? To the film’s credit, there is some attempt to answer these questions, with Sheeran doing the most of the heavy lifting.
If The Beatles never existed, wouldn’t our culture and history be indescribably different today? Would the Queer Eye hosts be referred to as “The Fab Five”? What would Ferris Beuller dance to on a parade float? Who hosted “Shining Time Station” before George Carlin? Would The Life of Brian exist? Would I Am Sam exist? What about Tropic Thunder? What happened to Mark David Chapman? Did the Manson murders happen? If they didn’t, what’s Sharon Tate up to?
How come Richard Curtis is only capable of one type of romance? Anyone familiar with Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, or Love Actually will instantly recognize the relationship between Jack and Ellie (Lily James), his manager and eventual love interest. Jack is a classic fool – bumbling, awkward, self-absorbed – while Ellie plays the virtuous, pretty one who waits patiently. Why does Curtis think “will they/won’t they” plot is charming? Does it have any relevance nowadays? Doesn’t he realize Hugh Grant was already kind of annoying? Does he think Yesterday’s premise is enough to hide the familiar, pat dialogue?
Would the United States even be a country? In the world of Yesterday, we learn that several other things are jolted out of existence (MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW). After the power outage, there is no Coca-Cola or Harry Potter. There are no cigarettes. Stop and think about that for a second. If there are no cigarettes, then wouldn’t it mean tobacco was never a cash crop? Without tobacco, how would the United States ever become a superpower? What effect would that have on slavery? Or England’s relationship to the United States? Or our status as a superpower?
You got the idea. After all this, I suspect you might have a question: why am I asking so many questions? Well, that is because these thought experiments are more engaging than anything that happens in Yesterday. Sure, there are fun scenes like when Jack plays “Let It Be” for his parents, and they have no idea it’s a beautiful ballad. The rest of the time, however, there are broad critiques of the recording industry – led by an awkward Kate McKinnon performance – and obligatory musical numbers. This is all presented with a lot of energy (thanks to Boyle, no Curtis film has ever looked this vibrant), except we are not given enough reason to suspend our disbelief. Patel and James are compelling actors, and here they have all the chemistry you might expect from Paul and Yoko.