After 12 seconds of a mysterious global blackout, the world of Yesterday becomes just a little different from ours. There is Pepsi, but no Coke; Stones but no Beatles. It is as if the secret conceit of the movie, directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and written by Richard Curtis (Love Actually), is that the biggest brand in any category (Harry Potter, eg) never existed.
A Facebook friend says she was triggered by the concept and will not see the movie, because she has a hard time with erasure. I would put it this way: Many of us are grateful enough for the beauty of The Beatles, who actually existed in our lifetimes, to feel uneasy about how accidental the meeting between John and Paul was that day in 1957, or how George Martin might easily never have strayed from his classical-and-comedy beat at Parlophone to produce them. Certain realities force us to see we are creatures of time, trapped in webs of cause-and-effect.
But Yesterday is not about those sorts of consequences. Nothing in its world has changed as a result of The Beatles being eradicated, except John, Paul, George, and Richard have no individual web presences, like your grandpa. The movie is about a pleasant, banal singer-songwriter, who is the only person on Earth to remember The Beatles’ music (it seems) and tries to say he wrote it all. His is the Guitar Hero fantasy: Playing iconic music makes me its creator, in a sense, and a legend in my own mind.
Himesh Patel (protagonist Jack Malik) has a nice voice, and Lily James is his convincing love interest. Ed Sheeran plays himself with charming self-deprecation. (“You’re Mozart, mate, and I’m Salieri.”) The movie is fun, and a morality tale: Faking unearned greatness eventually rots Malik’s soul, and in a typical jumble of Beatles references, he sings “Help” from a rooftop more pleadingly than Lennon did at Shea. When Malik drops his pretense, the movie shows it is ok not to have been a Beatle, as long as you are a nice guy and appreciate what you have back home. (To compare, the real Lennon often was not nice, not appreciative of those waiting for him, and not interested in returning home.)
More interestingly, the movie wonders, almost as an afterthought: What would become of actual Beatles in a world without The Beatles? Near the end it signals it will take a look, and I felt both dread and anticipation. Would the scene be respectful? Significant? Which man would it choose?
The movie seems to offer small consolation in exchange for its own erasure, by bringing back John Lennon—a “Marmite moment,” the director says; viewers will love it or hate it.
“It is really nice to see you,” Malik says emotionally, after learning John has “made it to 78.” John sums up his alternate life as travel, love, and winning a couple of fights for things he believed in. He is alone but has good memories that have nothing to do with The Beatles or anything that came from that experience. Yoko’s not going to like that.
It is a sentimental choice for a feel-good movie. Because if we are going to dabble in alternate worlds, how many end with John in an idyllic cottage by the sea? Without fame, wealth, time to do as he pleased, radical politics, the music and art worlds, and above all his partners, Paul and Yoko, what would have become of John Lennon?
Jack Malik does movie-John the favor of not telling him how big he and his friends were, before a cosmic sneeze wiped them out. But Malik has already outed the un-fab four, by name, globally, and the movie dares not address what will likely come next: swarms of fans demanding more from four guys who likely do not know each other and lack musical mastery. Paul McCartney, a Liverpool tradesman, sinks into depression over the realization he could have done more for his family if only he had made other choices.
The real John Lennon hated sentimentality. When Paul sang, “It’s getting better all the time,” John countered, “Can’t get no worse.” His solo song “How Do You Sleep” makes the punning criticism of my title to Paul about his work.
It is no coincidence that the movie Yesterday ends with “Ob-La-Di,” which the real John called “Paul’s granny shit,” for its sentimentality. The brilliance of The Beatles’ final version is its joyous celebration—and mockery—of everyday life, which came from the mix of personalities and moods in the group.
It also took a lot of work. Paul demanded so many takes and tracks that it led to more problems among them, and their balance engineer quit when it was done. John finally came in so agitated and high one day that he banged out the aggressive, overfast piano intro most of us know.
Jack Malik, on the other hand, sings it sweetly in a simple acoustic version, without irony, because that is the world he lives in.