“A world without The Beatles would be an infinitely worse place.”
— Liz (Sarah Lancashire)
Yesterday’s proposition is relatively simple to those of us who have read or watched The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling: Failed musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) awakens in a world where the Beatles never existed, at least as the band which defines pop music as we have understood it for over 50 years. If Jack can just remember the lyrics to songs like “Eleanor Rigby,” he can claim them as his own and conquer the worldwide music scene in a way he never dreamed possible.
As is frequently the case in films concerning show business, that success would not come without cost. In Jack’s case, possibly losing Ellie (Lily James), his manager/roadie and best friend, and, like him, a schoolteacher by day. Jack’s completely clueless that Ellie has been madly in love with him since they were children.
James, as Ellie, is vivacious and wonderful. Patel, as Jack, is morose and depressing. Lack of success at show business is not his problem. It’s his gloomy personality. Anyway, that’s what the film is about. It’s a love story about what’s more important to Jack, his musical success or his soul, and as far as that goes, the movie is a resounding success and a heartwarming love story.
However, this is, after all, a kind of Twilight Zone, a world defined by a major reordering of the space-time continuum. The God or Fate — or whatever you want to call it — has intervened in mortal affairs, possibly for the purpose of teaching one dude a moral lesson. The problem is, director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later, Steve Jobs) and writers Jack Barth and Richard Curtis pose an overwhelmingly fascinating question with ramifications that eclipse Jack’s and Ellie’s situation.
There were musicians, wildly popular ones, before the Beatles, but none approached their worldwide multimedia explosion. I’m not qualified to discuss how they changed music forever, nor how they may have changed the way it was made, but I know that the most riveting moment in the film is when Jack sings the titular “Yesterday” for a few of his friends who have grown up in this Beatle-less world. The power and poignance of that seemingly simple song moves Jack’s friends — and moved this viewer — more than anything else in the film.
The Beatles made the world a better place for a worldwide generation who, for the first time, were watching war, assassinations and the civil rights movement on the nightly news. Even beyond the difference their music made to countless individuals, the communal counter culture engendered by their fandom, their pacifism and even their casual drug use influenced many of that generation to “Turn on, tune in, drop out” and fundamentally change global society. A world without the Beatles would be a vastly different one, socially and culturally. It’s a world that this movie largely dares not to imagine.
Joel Fry, as Jack’s goofy best friend, steals most of his scenes. Musician Ed Sheeran turns in a gracious supporting performance as himself, while Kate McKinnon is almost entirely wasted as a caricature of a Hollywood agent. It’s an enjoyable summer romance movie, but Yesterday doesn’t take Abbey Road. It takes the lazy path in its refusal to confront the world-altering implications its own premise. That’s not something I expected from the typically ambitious Boyle.