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Help! ‘Yesterday’ Can’t Buy Me Love. So Run for Your Life, or Just Let It Be ...

A new movie imagines a world without the Beatles but mistakes the power of their songs with the essential nature of their history

Universal Studios/Ringer illustration

As a critic and lover of cinema, I always try to come to films with an open mind. But I can’t deny it: A Danny Boyle production in which all but one person has forgotten that the Beatles ever existed was not something that I could ever welcome impartially. Like all crazy-premise, cause-and-effect-style science fiction, Yesterday triggered so much speculative forethought in my mind before I saw it. If the Beatles didn’t exist, who would be the alpha dog of ’60s pop music? Would Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, whose love medleys includes “All You Need Is Love” and Wings’ “Silly Love Songs,” even exist? What about Monty Python’s Life of Brian, produced by George Harrison? The hypotheticals and counterfactuals are virtually endless. But what worried me most was the stance that the film would take with regard to the Beatles themselves. Imagine there’s no Beatles—but what for? (By the way, what would happen to “Imagine?”)

At first, it seems Yesterday is designed all for the sake of shock value. Struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) wakes up after a bike accident in his small English town of Suffolk and quickly realizes that his friends are not joking when they tell him they had never heard “Yesterday” until the moment he played it for them on his guitar. Boyle presents Jack’s feverish Google searches for the terms “Beatles” and “John Paul George Ringo” as appropriately nightmarish, with fast cuts, dramatic lighting, and images of literal beetles on his computer screen. But as Jack, armed with his memories of the band’s songs (and, crucially, the ability to play them) goes to spread the word, it’s the extent of this nightmare—and its countless implications—that the filmmakers fail completely to question.

In a reversal of the Coen brothers’ 2013 masterpiece Inside Llewyn Davis, Jack—who kind of resembles Llewyn, with his guitar, curls, beard, and morose posture—starts off as a failure but soon sells his soul, letting everyone believe that he’s written all the Beatles’ songs. Why? Well, because there’s a lot of money there. Because in this Beatles-free contemporary universe, the Beatles’ songs are, a bit illogically, extremely popular. When Jack’s friends deem “Yesterday” to be just a cute trifle, the terrifying yet genuinely fascinating possibility that all of the band’s iconic guitar-based pop songs would not be appreciated today is timidly approached. But soon enough, Jack’s world seems to change its mind overnight and declare all of the songs equally wonderful—we see full-blown Beatlemania minus the Beatles.

The filmmakers skirt the question of this 50-year-old music’s timelessness by rendering it de facto: Out of nowhere, a slick music manager named Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) hears Jack and simply knows he will be the biggest star ever. Later, Ed Sheeran (who does a decent job at playing himself) suggests changing “Hey Jude” to “Hey, Dude” in an effort to make Paul McCartney’s piano epic more relatable to millennials. But there’s no logic in this recommended update, which doesn’t stem from a genuine concern for the tune’s inherent power; it’s just an easy joke for Ed Sheeran fans. The same is true of all the other songs Jack co-opts, be they about Strawberry Fields or a certain Sadie, which require no melodic or lyrical changes to become hits in Yesterday’s universe.

Boyle relies heavily on the consensus, essential greatness of the Beatles’ songs to justify the film’s horrifying and wonkily executed premise. It is in the scenes where Jack plays some of the band’s most beautiful works at length that Yesterday pleases its audience: Even I teared up when Jack plays “The Long and Winding Road” half-decently. But I doubt I would have found this performance so powerful had I not been familiar with the song before: It was hearing this tune I had grown up with, created by musicians I idolize, being given space in a big movie that made me cry. And so my tears grew bitter as I inevitably recalled this clip from the “Let It Be” sessions, in which McCartney sings the song, looking intensely into the camera from behind his beard and his piano, while the palpable tension in the studio (Yoko Ono appears sitting on the floor next to John Lennon when the camera pulls back) predicts a band on the verge of implosion. I ultimately felt toyed with—tricked into sentimentality by a film that refuses to acknowledge how fandom and basic music appreciation really work, but still wants to harvest all its fruit.

By plucking the Beatles out of history, Yesterday could have been a commentary on how today’s music isn’t imaginable without “Yesterday,” but it doesn’t actually care about the band enough for that: Only their songs matter and the Beatles are reduced, in essence, to content providers. Yet the film still could have found a political—or simply dramatically compelling—angle, had it worked instead to question this very idea of music as content. Hammer, who gives Jack his big break but doesn’t care for his process or his feelings, represents the cold-hearted, dollar-sign-eyed music industry of today, which leaves little agency and money to the artists it celebrates and reshapes endlessly. But even though she is clearly one of the bad guys, Jack himself understands the Beatles’ music as simply “beautiful songs,” and not at all as pieces of a history that gain greatness from their contexts. (Did Boyle not see A Star Is Born?) When Jack goes to Liverpool to find key Beatles locations, it’s mostly to conjure the admittedly abstract lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby” and not to understand (let alone share) the history that led to its writing. This legendary song, like all the other Beatles tunes, is not considered a proper artifact; it’s just one more sing-along.

Perhaps because the filmmakers couldn’t think of anything to do with the setup, or perhaps simply because this is a Richard “all you need is Love, Actually” Curtis film, a romantic story between Jack and his no. 1 fan and OG manager Ellie (Lily James) is sprinkled on top. For some unexplained reason, Jack never notices how deeply this woman clearly loves him, but as soon as Ellie decides she won’t be playing these mind games forever, success takes him away from her, to L.A. In a film that conceives of a band’s entire oeuvre as a Spotify playlist, with every song occupying a random place in their ahistorical discography, modern travel and internet connectivity are strangely not at all understood. Ellie gives Jack an ultimatum that makes no sense in a world where planes and FaceTime are so ubiquitous, and Jack soon gets back to Suffolk for his album launch anyway. Suspension of disbelief is all well and good, but a suspension of emotional logic isn’t always a useful tool in a mainstream romantic comedy.

Nonsense seeps into every corner of Yesterday’s narrative. While I don’t expect the filmmakers to have imagined every single potential consequence of the Beatles disappearance—leave that to historians, conspiracy theorists, and vloggers—the lack of coherence in the outcomes they do depict tested my patience, especially because these outcomes are hardly entertaining enough to embrace the mystery. Because the execution of Yesterday’s central conceit is so reckless, it becomes difficult to accept the rest of the absurd and unproductive ideas the film introduces: a world without cigarettes or Coca-Cola, for example. Boyle’s chief achievement with these fake fun facts is merely to disorient his audience.

The other consequence of the director’s neglect for consequences is blatant disrespect for the Beatles themselves. Since the band never knew worldwide success in this alternate universe, their members had much more conventional lives and some of them even got to peacefully grow old, a possibility that fills Jack with gratitude. But by offering the Beatles different lives, Yesterday implicitly criticizes and discredits the ones they actually had. This rewriting of history implies that all the art these musicians created, as well as the fascinating if not always happy existences they led, were not as worthwhile as a musicless but simple and long time on earth would have been. Curtis not only sticks to his limited, hopelessly bourgeois understanding of happiness as marriage, three kids, and a mortgage (which Jack eventually realizes is everything he’s really ever wanted) but also refuses to see the Beatles as the masters of their own musical destiny. Their songs are allowed to exist, but only on their own, because the real-life story of the band—sex-crazed teenage girls, drugs, Charles Manson, divorce, adultery, the band’s breakup and, crucially, the assassination of Lennon and the death of George Harrison—is too complex and ugly to integrate into a nostalgic crowd-pleaser.

Last year, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One borrowed countless pop culture objects for their cultural capital, but without respecting their context: The Overlook Hotel from The Shining was reduced to a 3D haunted house populated by video-game characters. The same opportunistic flippancy drives Yesterday’s use of the Beatles’ music, and both films mark mainstream cinema’s recent turn to surface-level nostalgia, where iconic art is sanitized and reduced to its most obvious and marketable attributes (see also: Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman). Yesterday’s purpose is not to celebrate the band and the people behind the songs, but only to attract spectators young and old with the historic b(r)and name “Beatles.” It was such an easy game to play, but now I need to find a place to hide away.