The Beatles Never Existed in 'Yesterday,' a Movie That Makes No Goddamn Sense
This post spoils Yesterday, a movie in which a blackout causes the entire world to operate as though the Beatles (and cigarettes, and Coca-Cola) never existed.
Danny Boyle's new film, Yesterday, written by Love Actually mastermind Richard Curtis, operates on a ludicrous premise: What if there was a global power outage and the entire world, except for one man, forgot about the existence of the Beatles?
Now, let's get this straight. I love ludicrous premises, and am willing to suspend disbelief for just about any concept if it's charming enough. Much of Yesterday is quite charming, coming off less as a cutesy episode of The Twilight Zone than as a classic Curtis rom-com with an elevated framework. It also makes zero goddamn sense. Try to contain your shock and disbelief.
When Yesterday begins, Himesh Patel's Jack Malik is a struggling singer-songwriter bouncing around poorly attended gigs with his best friend/manager Ellie (Lily James). He's about to throw in the towel when the lights go out across the planet and he gets hit by a bus and, voila, to most of the planet, John, Paul, George, and Ringo are just a collection of random names, some of which belong to Popes. Jack finds himself in a complicated moral conundrum: Does he use his knowledge of hits like "Let It Be" and "I Saw Her Standing There" to live out his rockstar dreams? Or will his deception haunt him?
Turns out it's a little bit of both. He starts playing the songs, at least the ones he can remember, and soon enough garners the attention of none other than Ed Sheeran, playing himself in an extended cameo that's not exactly good, but still comes off as surprisingly genuine. Next thing Jack knows, he's being flown out to Los Angeles and courted by a money-hungry manager (Kate McKinnon). (No, he never tries to trot out "Octopus's Garden" only to be met with a resounding: WTF.)
It begins to become obvious that Curtis and Boyle are less concerned with the whole mystery of why the Beatles disappeared from existence and more concerned with the budding romance between Jack and Ellie. She's been harboring a deep crush on him for years; he has refused to take notice, and ultimately realizes the error of his ways. It's all very sweet. Patel and James are adorable together, especially during a long drunken sequence in -- where else? -- Liverpool. Still, it throws the general weirdness of the movie into relief, especially given that the Beatles aren't the only thing that's vanished.
Yes, let that soak in: There are other massively popular pieces of culture that do not exist in the parallel universe of Yesterday. But aside from the fact that people don't know what [insert major phenomenon] is, nothing else about the world changes. While the rom-com that's unfolding is cute, the mind reels at the kind of alternative histories Yesterday presents and does absolutely nothing with.
So what is excised from the planet? The band Oasis, for one. Alas, Liam and Noel Gallagher never get together to make beautiful music and shout profanities at one another. Now, this one sort of tracks, given that the lack of Beatles would have radically altered the state of pop music. However, the musical landscape hasn't radically shifted. Coldplay still exists, as do Ed Sheeran, The Killers, and perhaps most randomly, the Fratellis. Yes, the Fratellis, that Scottish rockers who were big in 2006 and have one song that's so similar to a Beatles track someone pointed it out online. They survived. How?
You know what else got wiped? Coca-Cola and cigarettes! Jack asks for a Coke and finds out there's only Pepsi. Later, he remarks that he would like a cigarette, and he is met with a blank stare. Cigarettes have never been invented, and yet the course of human history seems mostly unchanged. Have fewer people died of lung cancer? Was there ever a tobacco trade? What became of the Marlboro Man? Did Mad Men ever make it to air? These are questions that need answering.
Through all of this the plot just chugs along, and Curtis never chooses to offer any rationale for why the Beatles or Coke or cigarettes suddenly were snapped from memory. (Maybe it's a Thanosian plot by some really weird aliens?) By the end, the audience learns that Jack's not the only person who remembers the Beatles, but the other two poor souls that do are just happy he's keeping their music alive. There's no magic moment when suddenly everyone snaps out of their trance. Instead, Jack just makes the decision that his love for Ellie is more important than fame and fortune built on a lie, or whatever the term for this particularly impossible moral crime would be. He releases the songs for free and becomes a school teacher where Beatles songs are part of his lesson plan.
In the very final moments, he is in a state of post-coital bliss with Ellie and comments that he feels like Harry Potter after defeating Voldemort. Ellie replies: "Who?" So, indeed, J.K. Rowling's napkin scribblings never became a billion dollar business. At least in the Yesterday timeline, we never have to learn that wizards used to just shit on the floor.
As a vehicle for some very nice covers of Beatles songs and a will-they-won't-they romance, Yesterday is often lovely. As speculative fiction it could very well drive a person crazy.