I was considered really, really weird for liking the Beatles as a high schooler some 20 years ago, right up until it seemed like everybody liked them. It was music that was given to me through my father, who owned every album and gleefully exposed me to the movie Yellow Submarine at an age where it made even less sense than it’s supposed to. The Beatles were a band that had lore behind them, whose every offhand comment to the press, major concert and infamous interpersonal feud had been breathlessly catalogued.
Note: This article contains some spoilers for Yesterday.
Everybody, at some point, comes to the Beatles, if not to worship them then to scoff about how enjoying their music is so basic (or convincingly point out they cribbed from other artists). The very premise of director Danny Boyle’s Yesterday seems to prove that everyone has an opinion on the Beatles, and that we all want to gawk at what sort of world it would be without the lads from Liverpool. (For one thing, one that also wouldn’t have Oasis.) It’s plainly unthinkable, and like a mob of screaming teens chasing after history’s biggest boy band, we’re enthralled. What’s interesting about this equal parts weird and hilarious thought experiment is that it’s completely removed from the Boomer nostalgia that defines Beatles mythologizing. The Beatles, Boyle is saying, belong to everybody.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) can’t catch a break as an artist until a bizarre worldwide power outage (set to the orchestral crescendo from “A Day in the Life,” naturally) ends in his being hit by a bus. Upon waking, he discovers he’s missing two front teeth and that nobody gets his glib references to Beatles lyrics. When he performs Paul McCartney’s solo “Yesterday,” his friends want to know how he came up with such an incredible song. McCartney himself has spoken about how the song came to him in a dream, and as such he initially was certain he’d heard his own song somewhere else. It’s a knowing wink during the surreal moment in which Jack’s situation first becomes clear to the audience.
At first, Jack’s motivations seem to be entirely selfish. Surely we’ve all fantasized about going back in time and writing a song, novel or screenplay before the artist who made it famous (or is it really just me?). Faced with the impossible windfall that is the Beatles’ entire song catalogue, Jack goes on an artistic tear, recreating all of them. It isn’t until fairly late in the film—after scenes where he’s desperately visited Liverpool landmarks to refresh his memory of some of the band’s more wandering lyrics—that another theme emerges. What would it really mean if you were the only person on Earth who remembered a monumental body of work?
As the Boomers age (and die of bad behavior, as the man who lovingly introduced me to the Beatles did), it seemed inevitable that we would get a movie that holds the music of the Beatles on a pedestal—or at least, a better one than Across the Universe. That kind of a movie, I expected, would argue that the Beatles were revolutionary, wise and the voices of their generation, beacons of genius and creativity stifled by previously unheard-of mega-fame, saints totally devoid of any of their exhaustively documented human flaws.
I argue that it’s almost impossible to separate the art from the artist that created it, but I still say thank goodness Yesterday was not that movie. It’s a film with plenty of other things to say, almost to the point that it completely loses its own narrative thread near the end: It’s a rom-com in which Jack and his childhood friend/loyal manager Ellie are destined to eventually get together, a statement on how even artistic genius needs to be packaged and marketed for maximum superficiality if it’s to succeed at all, and a harrowing statement on how fame and fortune are the polar opposite of happiness. Underlying all of that is Boyle’s argument that the songs of the Beatles are timeless, that they don’t and shouldn’t belong to one person because they have something to say to everyone, even those of us who weren’t born until almost 20 years after the band broke up.
There’s one odd thing about a late part of the film, one the trailers and teasers have presented disingenuously, and unnecessarily so. There’s an implication that John Lennon and Paul McCartney at one point confront Jack publicly—perhaps this is a world in which their genius was passed over and only now have they managed to convince everybody of their original authorship. This turns out just to be a dream, a manifestation of Jack’s guilt over his plagiarism. It’s made all the more baffling when later, it is revealed that there is, in fact, a Beatle alive and existing in the world, and we learn that this really is some strange alternate timeline.
The big, big spoiler: It’s John (Robert Carlyle, uncredited), and he’s just living a completely normal life at age 78, never having been slain in 1980 and ready to just give Jack a pep talk about happiness. It’s certain to be a tearjerker for audience members of the right age, but it feels odd in a movie that otherwise seems content to just revel in the Beatles’ music without interrogating the men or the age they lived in at all.
Jack’s last act doubles as a truly presumptuous romantic gesture and a confession: After rocking Wembley with the band’s greatest hits, he professes his love to Ellie and then admits that he’s a fraud, but vows to release all the music of the Beatles to the public for free. It’s best not to think too hard about what the fallout to this would be: Surely every septuagenarian George Harrison in England would get mobbed to within an inch of his life after getting namechecked by Jack, or Jack himself be thrown into an asylum for ranting about how he’s actually from some other timeline.
Forget that dull stuff, and Jack’s act of defiance against his corporate handlers is Yesterday’s one strong philosophical stance amid the romantic comedy trappings and the running gags about what other things don’t exist in this timeline. If something is so meaningful and so cherished by so many people, should one person or group have total claim over it? In a movie about some of the most tightly controlled musical intellectual property in history, it’s a pretty gutsy statement for Boyle to say, “No.”
Kenneth Lowe is talking perfectly loud. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.