The Beatles appropriation vehicle Yesterday crosses the in-fad music movie concept with a premise that was trendy in the immediate post-LOST television era. As the entire planet experiences a 12 second blackout (implied to be the result of a solar flare), Jack Malik (Hamis Patel) is hit by a bus. He wakes up in the hospital having missed the entire global event (ala Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead) and soon realizes he is the only person on the planet who remembers The Beatles. That setup is, unfortunately, as interesting as the story gets.
Over the remainder of the movie, Jack is propelled forward almost as if by momentum. Simply by remembering and playing The Beatles’ songs, he finds himself in escalating situations of praise and notoriety. Perhaps this listless and passive approach to the protagonist is meant to demonstrate how little control we have over the outcomes of our lives. All it really does, however, is prevent the plunging of any interesting depths.
Just as The Walking Dead is buckling under years of refusal to address the origin of its zombies, Yesterday, despite its yearning to be a serious drama, struggles to be anything more than a romantic comedy. Jack barely struggles with the concept of creative ownership. His lack of self esteem was present from the first scene, and he doesn’t slide into a depression as most frauds do. Likewise, The Beatles aren’t the only cultural item that only he remembers. Oasis, Coca Cola, cigarettes, and Harry Potter have all disappeared as well, and each is played for a cheap joke. This usage is especially disappointing in relation to Oasis, as Jack playing Wonderwall at a Middle School talent show is what caught the ear and eye of his manager and love interest Ellie Appleton (Lily James). Since Ellie, like everyone else in the world, doesn’t remember The Beatles, Jack playing her Wonderwall to test her and the limits of his new reality is a scene that seemingly should’ve written itself.
The one inventive use of the premise reveals the movie’s true intentions. (If you still intend on seeing the movie and don’t want to be spoiled, skip the rest of this paragraph.) Encouraged by the two other people on the planet who remember The Beatles (don’t ask; the extent of their involvement in the plot is the mechanic I just described), Jack visits a still-living John Lennon (Robert Carlyle) for guidance as to how to handle his newfound but unearned fame. Lennon is quietly happy in his small beach-side cottage, and the implication is that he was better off for never finding fame as he was never murdered. It is in this conversation that the meaning of the movie’s title is revealed.
Jack yearns for when he was an unknown struggling artist and had all the attention of the woman even though he had yet to confess his love to her. The only problem is, when he was living yesterday he yearned for tomorrow, in other words, where he is today. (Got it?) I’d ask what you think Jack does next, but I’m sure already know (and probably don’t care).
Promising a plenitude of possibilities with its premise, Yesterday ends up as a misguided missive to mediocrity. If the goal was to show that there’s nothing wrong with being normal and average (which there surely isn’t), the decision to have a character achieve world-changing success and spurn it without grappling with any of the consequences or implications is dumbfounding. Fighting with My Family handled this theme better as a motif shown through a supporting character’s arc.
The inclusion of an unsuccessful Lennon treads into even more mindboggling and perhaps insulting territory. Is the audience really supposed to accept his greatness going unrealized because he lived longer? Is the movie really saying that it’s not just ok to accept being average but that success should be shunned altogether?
I find the presumptive answer to these questions hard to imagine, and I’m surely not the only one.