Parts of Yesterday, the high concept rom-com from director Danny Boyle and scribe Richard Curtis, feel as cloying and derivative as most pop music, with tired tropes of unrequited love and wild adventures, all with the subtlety of episodic television. And yet, in many ways, Yesterday is also kind of glorious.
The storyline, about a singer/songwriter who wakes up after an accident to find that he’s the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles, is a fun starting point, and I figured going in that we’d have 90 minutes of that to play out. Instead, Curtis’ script delves deeper into a world stripped of excellence and everything directly derived from it. The logic of the story is refreshing. The filmmakers haven’t just glommed onto a clever idea, but know how to work it, how to polish its rough edges into something that’s superficially simple but actually quite profound.
And that, of course, is exactly what masters of pop music do with every downbeat.
Beyond the flights of fancy are real ideas. What responsibility do we have to hold onto our cultural output when it’s in danger of being forgotten? Would the things we consider to be essential canon be appreciated when decontextualized and lifted out of time? How does what’s popular affect how we hear, not just what we hear, and are we simply swayed by what’s comfortable versus what’s unsettling or new? With sampling culture driving much of popular music today, are we creating a legacy of pop music where new generations simply feed on cultural fodder without ever knowing the context from which it’s derived?
These are deep questions for a frivolous bit of fun, but they energize Boyle’s film. Performance-wise, Himesh Patel does a fine job in bringing his character Jack Malik to life. His earnestness as a singer/songwriter playing to half-empty tents is believable, as are the complexity of feelings for his friend and biggest champion, Ellie (Lily James). As Malik’s star rises thanks to his stolen songs, the likes of Ed Sheeran (playing himself) and his manager Debra (Kate McKinnon) circle, finding both inspiration and opportunity for exploitation.
The most powerful thing about the core idea of Yesterday is in demanding that the songs be listened to as songs, not just as sacred Beatles classics. One walks into the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, ensconced in a glass tomb, and it seems beautiful because we’re told it is. The Beatles’ tunes, stripped back and naked, are put directly against similar songs in a literal competition. Sheeran pulls out a lovely bit of songwriting to show off his skills, and then the audience laughs as the opening moments of “Long and Winding Road” play on the piano. The competition isn’t even close from the first notes, and everyone knows it.
The question – would we recognize excellence if it came from nowhere, or would it be lost in the cacophony of cultural output and changing fashion? – is an almost theological conundrum. Which messiah do we follow when all are shouting about having the key to enlightenment? Which genius do we proclaim when there are more and more waiting in the wings (or Wings, as it were)?
Yesterday is a sweet rom-com while simultaneously an intelligent, brilliantly crafted, and thoroughly enjoyable celebration of what the Beatles were, are, and will continue to be within our cultural canon. The film’s logical swings are easily explained if we take the story as a mere coma dream. Meanwhile, it provides an edict that the world is a better place with these songs in it, however they’re preserved. The movie has a lack of cynicism that’s wonderful, a melodicism that’s infectious, and a story that’s smart and fun and brash and silly. In the end, what else could you want from a film meant to remind the world of the fabulousness of the Fab Four?