Danny Boyle’s newest film, Yesterday — about a young musician who wakes up after an accident and seems to be the only person in the world to remember the Beatles — inspires a deep and persistent sense of despair. The rags to riches fantasy film is a twist on the jukebox musical with no apparent love, respect or reverence for the labour of art. While presented as a somewhat light movie about a young man torn between his dream and his love, it’s difficult to imagine why he can’t have both. With such an absurd premise that falls apart after just a few moments of lazy consideration, the movie devotes so much time to upholding the strangeness of its proposition without worrying about committing to any sense of imagination.
In a film that is ostensibly a love letter to the Beatles, the movie doesn’t really have a strong interest in the band. As a singer-songwriter, our protagonist Jack Malick (a very charming Himesh Patel) is constantly talking about the Beatles. He drops references to their lyrics and opines after a failed music show that he never wanted to be Paul or John, he just wanted to have moderate success. In theory, this allows a more comfortable transition for after he gets hit by a bus and is still constantly referencing the Fab Four. It is in no way a lazy writer’s ploy.
As Malick begins to realize that in this parallel universe the Beatles no longer exist, he starts to get the bright idea to pass their songs off as his own. It is not a decision he takes lightly. Patel does his best to showcase his inner conflict with wide-eyed skepticism and a furrowed brow, but the script does little to support him. Above all, the film frustratingly fails to address the work and artistry that the Beatles committed to their words. Instead of the act of writing, the montage scenes are devoted to the act of remembering.
The only scenes that come close to echoing a sense of what has actually been lost are scenes of Malick visiting Liverpool and places like Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields. They are featured in a mostly wordless montage and one does not get a deep sense of what they may have meant to Paul or John. They rely largely on audience foreknowledge, which supports the idea that this film is meant for an older generation who yearn for the comforts of nostalgia.
This tension between the labour of creation versus the act of remembering becomes a deep sense of anguish. The film posits that the process of art is insignificant versus its impact. It does not matter who wrote “Hey Jude” (which, in a truly cursed gag is reworked as “Hey Dude”) as long as people connect with the music. Perhaps as a film critic, I find myself in a precarious position where this lack of context would put me out of work, but the idea should be generally approached with a certain amount of cynicism and apprehension.
Even within the confines of the film, before the grand fantasy moment where Malick becomes the only person to remember the Beatles, the band is still very much a part of people’s daily lives. The movie suggests that we must hold onto the art we love because if we don’t, it might disappear forever. Especially in the context of the film’s idiotic treatment of technology and general pandering to an older boomer audience, Yesterday simply circumvents the labour and experience that goes into writing any one of the Beatles songs.
The film’s overall focus on the toxicity of the recording industry only amplifies this depressing angle. The film moves in a direction towards the question of ownership, suggesting that great music doesn’t belong to music studios or artists, but the people who consume it. This hypocrisy of this when the rights to the Beatles music are tightly controlled and highly profitable for its owners (it is only in the past couple of years that any ownership of their music has actually been passed back to the surviving members of the band). We already live in a world where the creators themselves have little to no control over their work, so to make an uplifting fantasy that only drives the dagger deeper into the lack of autonomy and respect creators get feels icky at best.
Ideologically, Yesterday is an absolute minefield of badly articulated and half-baked ideas about the world of art and artists. As it feeds into the endless cannibalistic loop of nostalgia porn, it disregards all the reasons why the Beatles actually connected with the world in the first place. It is so egregiously mishandled that any of the charms the film might have (Himesh Patel and surprisingly, Ed Sheeran, who at least convincingly articulates the weight of labour and the value of the music) feels even more offensive because this is the kind of content you hope an audience will reject on principle alone. Every moment that makes someone grin or giggle means one more chance someone will embrace the film and its absolutely toxic ideas. ■
Yesterday is in theatres June 21.