When Jack Malik wakes up from head trauma to discover nobody else remembers The Beatles he runs to his record collection to double check whether the band ever existed. Flipping through vinyl albums, he starts yanking out records in the “B” section. One of the albums that falls to the floor is a David Bowie LP.
This moment solidifies the sheer, shitty laziness of Yesterday when it comes to its central conceit. The idea that hundreds of people got together to make a movie that centers on the question of “what if the Beatles never existed” and yet they allowed a Bowie record – out of all the artists they could have referenced here – to be in the movie shows how little they care.
See, David Bowie’s name wasn’t David Bowie when he started. It was David Jones. But when his career got underway he had to change it, as there was already a famous Davey Jones… the lead singer of The Monkees, the Pre-Fab Four, a TV band that was created to ape The Beatles.
Without The Beatles there would be no David Bowie. We’d have David Jones; this is a small thing, but it’s the sort of small thing that shows the subtle and exciting impact The Beatles had on the world, a subtle and exciting impact that Yesterday is totally uninterested in exploring. This movie seems to have been made by people determined to prove that The Beatles actually ARE overrated, since they present a world where the absence of The Beatles has made no discernible impact at all.
Look, I get that Yesterday is a romcom with a gimmick, not an alternate reality scifi movie, but the profoundly lackadaisical way the film approaches its gimmick is indicative of the larger lackadaisical nature of the script, which is simply terrible. It’s possible this is one of the worst written major releases of the year, if not this century, and the badness of the writing begins with its absolute disrespect for its own concept and continues through a whole bunch of badly drawn characters and culminates in a finale that I found absolutely despicable, and also totally ignorant about the modern state of music.
Himesh Patel plays Jack, a struggling singer/songwriter who can’t catch a break and who has lost all confidence in himself. His best friend and manager Ellie, played by Lily James, is the only person who truly believes in him. One night, after a particularly disheartening show, Jack decides to hang it all up. After he does so a global blackout hits and Jack is nailed by a bus; when he wakes up missing two teeth and with some head trauma he discovers that somehow The Beatles never existed. He, a singer/songwriter, has the only memory of Beatles songs, and he begins playing them at local pubs and for his friends.
There are a couple of moments in Yesterday where the movie has the option to be good, and this is one of them. Jack plays Beatles tunes around and… nobody cares. These great, iconic masterworks just slip past people at the pub, and his parents can’t be bothered to sit still to listen to Hey Jude. There’s a lot to play with here – Jack begins to realize it’s the singer, not the song, and I think there are some exceptional questions about the nature of art, its reception and the way the recording industry values things other than talent that can be raised and explored.
But the film hastens past this and gets Jack into a recording studio to cut an EP. Ed Sheeran – who somehow still is a superstar – hears the songs and is amazed; thus begins Jacks’ ascent to the top of the pops.
What happens next is a pretty standard ‘guy gets successful and becomes an asshole’ story, except that it’s undercut by the fact that JACK IS NOT TALENTED. This is maybe the weirdest aspect of the movie. See, usually in these stories the asshole is a real jackass but the talent is so real that we still love them anyway. But Jack is just ripping off songs, and in case we thought maybe he was actually a good singer/songwriter the one time he slips an original into a recording session everybody is like “That one isn’t so good, do you have any more great ones like A Hard Day’s Night?”
Because Jack is untalented everything he does is just dickish, and let me tell you, Jack’s a dick. He’s not an exciting dick, not the kind of guy who behaves badly and is wild. He’s a radioactive dick, the kind of guy who is always sort of sour. Worse than that, Ellie has been in love with Jack for decades, and he’s known – he must have known! – and yet he never addresses it, and simply allows her to drive him around and be his manager and be his number one supporter without ever thinking about what she might like out of their relationship.
Look, it’s not that Jack owes her sex or love, and there’s an interesting movie to be made where he doesn’t love her… but this is not an interesting movie. So Jack has been sort of harboring feelings as well for DECADES, LITERAL DECADES, and simply stringing this woman along. I find this behavior reprehensible and indicative of the deep narcissism that drives the character, the same deep narcissism that sends him out looking for fame with other people’s songs.
Yesterday eventually turns into an apology for plagiarism, but even the arguments that it makes in favor of stealing the work of The Beatles isn’t established within the movie itself. The film shows us that at least two other people also remember The Beatles and are on to what Jack is doing. At first it seems very ominous – are they alternate reality police? Will they reveal his phoniness? – but it turns out they’re just happy to hear the songs again. One of them says, and I’m paraphrasing, “A world without The Beatles is infinitely sadder.”
So the argument is that Jack is doing a net good by releasing these songs into the world… but the film makes no effort to prove this! It doesn’t show how the existence of The Beatles pre-blackout improved anyone’s lives and it doesn’t show how their absence post-blackout hurt anyone. The world is mostly unchanged – except for the fact that cigarettes and Coca-Cola were never invented, both of which predate The Beatles, and perhaps explain why there are no Beatles? – and so this argument fails on its face. The world is no less happy without the band than it was with the band! So what’s the big deal?
What’s more, the movie makes no effort to show us how the songs of The Beatles impact people. We’re told again and again that Jack is the greatest songwriter who ever lived (very big statement for a guy who has recorded an album’s worth of material, IMHO, even if that material is The Beatles’ Greatest Hits (And Also Being For the Benefit of Mister Kite For Some Reason)), but we never see what that means for regular folks. One of the things about The Beatles’ music is how deeply personal it is for many of us; it’s the soundtrack of our lives, songs to which we turn in our happiest and saddest moments. The range of the music is such that there’s a Beatles song for every occasion, even Tax Day, and the sound of the band is so dynamic, so changing, so far-reaching that you can listen to their catalog all day and never feel like it’s repetitive. These are songs that have been there for us, that are friends to us, companions and comfort.
But the movie never dramatizes this! At all! It just sort of takes it for granted, which is a crazy bad bit of writing. By never exploring the human meaning of The Beatles catalog – by just treating it as product, like the erased Coca-Cola itself – Yesterday further undercuts its own themes and concepts. When Jack is told by the other two Rememberers that it’s a blessing to give the world The Beatles he pivots to that; previously he had been feeling some guilt about being a song thief but now it’s absolutely relieved.
What follows here on are spoilers for the end of the film, but also are about some of the movie’s most troubling aspects. You’ve been warned.
After he justifies his song theft, Jack goes on a trip to visit an old man… John Lennon. In a world without Beatles he was never murdered, and John is a retired sailor living on the seashore with his dogs and sketches. Jack shows up and, as far as I can tell, does not tell John that in another reality he was a superstar whose work changed the lives of millions and altered the very direction of human culture – there’s like a whole movie to be made about THAT conversation – but instead tries to get John’s blessing to keep stealing Beatles music.
This is a weird scene because, like so many of the other dropped balls in Yesterday, there’s something to explore here that the film refuses to explore. John’s life in this reality is different, and he’s an old man who says that he has been happy. What is the value of John’s individual happiness and old age compared to the version of John who created music that touched the lives of perhaps billions of people? This is a truly incredible concept to play with, and I don’t know that there’s a correct answer to it – is John better off as a happy old man or as the guy who made such an impact on the world? – which is what would make it so fascinating to get into!
But this movie is lazier than my dog on a hot Sunday afternoon, and so John just gives Jack a double fisted platitude – tell the girl how you feel and always tell the truth – and exits stage left.
This brings us to the movie’s terrible, immoral climax.
Jack goes to play a big show at Wembley, his coronation as the god of pop. In the audience is Ellie, who has already had TWO confrontations with Jack about her feelings for him, and who has begun dating a very kind, loving man who seems to be good to her.
An aside about Ellie: this is the kind of movie where Lily James, a true stunning beauty, says that she will always be just the girl with the frizzy hair. It’s so nuts, especially when the lead is kind of not leading man handsome (and I’m not being a dick about this, it’s a running joke in the movie). But more than that, Ellie’s just as much of an asshole as Jack is, but in her own shitty romcom way. She’s a teacher, and when Jack goes on tour for the first time she can’t go with him. That’s fine, but later when Jack is trying to figure out their deal she basically tells him he can be on tour and a rock star or be with him.
What the hell? She spent the past ten years shuttling his untalented ass to poorly-attended gigs… and now that he’s hit it big she’s against his career? What’s more, Jack hasn’t technically moved out of their small town, he’s on tour and recording in LA. At one point he takes a weekend trip to Liverpool to soak up some Beatles juju – there’s no reason he can’t see Ellie all the time! The idea that she would give him this “Me or the recording career” ultimatum is not only madness, it’s shitty writing because it doesn’t follow from her character at all. And if her character is someone who wants Jack to just toil on a shitty pub circuit so she can always help him… well, she’s a bad person!
Anyway, she’s been in this relationship and we have seen no indication that it’s a bad one or that this guy is a jerk. But this doesn’t stop Jack from putting Ellie on the big screen at Wembley and confessing his love for her. This is a psychopathic move, and the camera keeps showing us the other dude in the audience! It’s insane!
Then he does something even dumber – he tells the audience that he didn’t write these songs, that John, Paul, George and Ringo did. This is stupid because it’s meaningless, and I can’t believe anyone listening even understands what he’s getting at. I would actually assume the music press would take this as a gimmick – “Oh, his thing is that he’s from an alternate universe, bringing us the pop music from his home!” – as opposed to taking it at face value.
At any rate, Jack declares he won’t make money from the music and so he releases his album for free on the internet because everyone should have access to The Beatles. In a movie that is stupid and disconnected from any identifiable human reality, this might be the stupidest part of all – guys, everybody is going to download/stream this album anyway. Like, the whole problem facing the record industry is that nobody pays for music. Maybe the argument is that in this alternate reality record sales are still muscular, but nobody mentions this. It’s such a dopey pointless gesture that sums up everything about this shitty movie – poorly considered, meaningless, and totally misunderstanding its own milieu on an epic level.
When Jack professes his love Ellie leaves her boyfriend, who is totally understanding. It’s an infuriating romcom plot that is inhuman and grotesque, and that I can’t believe is in a movie released in the Year of Our Lord 2019 (also what I can’t believe: this movie has Jack attaining hit status in 2019 with I Saw Her Standing There, which opens with the lyric “Well she was just 17/If you know what I mean”). I watched this sequence mouth agape; it’s followed by a short chase scene and I was convinced Jack would fall, hit his head and wake up in the real world in the aftermath of the bus accident, ready to finally confess his love to Ellie… but instead they go off, get married, he becomes a teacher and they have kids. Then she reveals nobody in this reality has heard of Harry Potter AND HIS FUCKING EYES LIGHT UP.
I don’t know if this movie could have been salvaged once the script was bizarrely accepted by the filmmakers, but lead Himesh Patel does the film no favors. He’s not a bad actor, but he really drills into the unlikable aspects of Jack and does not bring many positive aspects to the fore. He’s often whiny, always seems put-upon, is impatient with others and, as far as I can tell, only cares about other human beings when they have something to give or do for him. When he yells at the crew in the recording studio and is dressed down by Kate McKinnon (this is supposed to be meaningful, as McKinnon plays a sociopath, so when she tells Jack he’s gone too far it should carry weight) the scene doesn’t land because Jack is always kind of a dick.
Maybe there’s just no salvaging a character whose first reaction upon learning he’s the only person who knows The Beatles is to say “This is my chance to get rich and famous.” Especially when that character is shown, again and again, to be not that talented. I think this is what I can’t get past – that the movie has this guy who would never go anywhere, but who feels entitled to success. The film doesn’t break him down enough at the end – he goes off to have a great life where he still is singing Beatles songs all the time. Again, if we saw that The Beatles meant a lot to Jack, or if like Hey Jude was his parents’ wedding song or something I wouldn’t mind this so much, but since the movie treats the music like content, his continued ownership of it irks me.
Maybe that ends up being the wildest aspect of Yesterday; it’s essentially a pro-plagiarism, pro-piracy movie. The music belongs to everyone!, proclaims the movie that procured pricey licenses to Beatles songs. The important thing is that the music is out there, not that the people who created it are recognized. And you know, there’s a great ‘death of the author’ argument to make here… but again, Yesterday is interested in making no arguments whatsoever, except for the argument that 1990s style romcom sociopathy can still work as we enter the third decade of the 21st century.