Movies & TV

Movie Review: 'Yesterday' Imagines a World Without The Beatles

The homage to the immortal band is also a romcom.

What would the world be like without the Beatles? Danny Boyle’s new romcomYesterday tackles this question with a Twilight Zone plot where struggling musician Jack Malik becomes the only person in the world to remember the greatest band of all time after a worldwide blackout. Himesh Patel endearingly plays the luckless Malik, who’s supported by his manager and fan club of one, his childhood best friend Ellie, played by the endlessly charming Lily James.  

How relevant is the Beatles’ music in an age of Spotify, torrents, and YouTube? The premise of the film is highlighted by the fact that Boyle chose to cast a conventionally unattractive man of Indian ethnicity to remember the greatest songs ever written, driving home the fact that the brilliance of the music transcends whoever wrote them. Or pretends to, anyway.  

Malik uses his incidentally encyclopedic recollection of the Beatles’ repertoire to catapult him into superstardom. He’s discovered by Ed Sheeran, who plays a parody of himself, and his manager, Debra Hammer, a grotesque caricature of a music industry mogul who sees artists as walking cash machines. Kate McKinnon plays Hammer to Saturday Night Live perfection (or Thursday Night Live, if you live in the post-blackout world) as she unabashedly insults Malik to his face about his unattractiveness and how much money she’ll be getting from him. Hammer may be fictional, but Boyle and writer Richard Curtis only make her seem more real by ramping up her worst features. 

Photo by IMDB.

One of Yesterday’s great triumphs is managing to get about 18 of the Beatles’ most well-known songs into the film. It’s the familiarity of these songs that drive much of the humor, such as when a bruised and toothless Malik plays “Yesterday” to his friends and none of them have ever heard it before. A horrified Malik is compelled to share more of the Beatles' songs and attempts to reconstruct all of them, wracking his brain trying to recall lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby” and even making a trip to Liverpool to visit the places that inspired some of the band's most iconic songs such as “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields.” 

It’s a melancholy journey both for Malik and the viewer, who share the memory of the Beatles in a world where no one else does. In 2015, Kanye West collaborated with Paul McCartney on “Only One” and the Twittersphere went bonkers over Kanye giving this “new artist” a chance and “launching his career.” The sobering reality is that Yesterday borrows from the world we live in today as much as it does from fiction. More and more people are unaware that four lads from Liverpool cranked out an unparalleled wealth of songs that touched and influenced the world. One of the funniest bits of the film and a low-key dig is when Malik Googles a certain controversial band from Manchester and they don’t show up on the search results. 

Photo by IMDB.
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Malik’s drive to sing the songs of the Beatles comes less from a desire to achieve the fame and fortune he never attained with his own rudimentary talents, but more from a deep and earnest mission to preserve something truly important. Would the songs rocket to millions of YouTube hits in this day and age? Boyle seems to think so. It’s hard to imagine a world without Beatles songs, and as part homage to the Liverpudlian quartet, stresses throughout the film how the music is timelessly great.  

Oddly enough, the primary plot of the romance between Ellie and Jack, charming as it is, feels somewhat underserved. Ellie plays the wallflower best friend whose unrequited love has gone unnoticed for decades. It feels almost incestuous in parts because Jack views Ellie like a sister and has never shown any romantic inclination toward her. It’s a plot that’s even less believable than a mysterious global outage that wipes the memory of the Beatles from the world. Ellie is so painfully devoted and loving to her best friend that it’s more criminal for Jack to not have noticed it for decades than it is for him to pass off Beatles songs as his own. 

Photo by IMDB.

In this regard, the love angle feels a little like a poorly appended subplot in the story about the meteoric rise of one Jack Malik. The flow would’ve benefited greatly with hints that Malik had even a smattering of fancy for the hapless Ellie, but instead it feels like Malik stumbled upon a love he clearly didn’t deserve and simply takes it. It parallels his journey of being the sole person who remembers the Beatles and capitalizes on it. Ultimately and redemptively, Malik makes all the right choices both as a man and as an artist and it’s satisfying. 

Yesterday is funny, charming, and melancholy. One of the most beautiful, emotional parts comes near the end when Malik is tipped off by a pair of helpful strangers to see a person who would otherwise not exist in 2019 (played by Robert Carlyle in an uncredited role). That sequence surprised me and had me flush with sentimentality and demanded loads of tissue; it is the one segment of the film that might push Yesterday slightly past other excellent Beatles musicals such as Across the Universe only because it delivers what might be the one positive note in a Beatles-less world. We can only imagine.

Photo by IMDB.

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Hugo Zacarias Yonzon IV
Zach Yonzon is a cake artist and co-owner of Bunny Baker
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