We need to talk about Yesterday and The Beatles

I’m writing this while listening to a playlist of songs by John, Paul, Goerge and Ringo. And with each track that flips past, I like Yesterday less. 

This is the movie that revolves around Jack, a struggling musician who’s the only person in the world who knows who the Beatles are. My initial thought, when finding out it would be written by Richard Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle was that it sounded like a mismatch made in heaven.

Curtis is the undisputed king of British romantic comedies – albeit one I’m not a big fan of – and Boyle is an extremely competent director that doesn’t have a specific style but the ability to read a script and quickly craft one for each of his movies.

Yesterday feels like it benefits from neither as the movie is one that doesn’t know what it is. Boyle brings to life some really nice moments and Curtis’ script has the back and forth banter between characters that you’d expect. But my notes from watching the movie consist of a string of genres and genre-specific tropes with question marks next to them. 

Is it a rom com? Is it a what/if science fiction film? Does the script want to say something profound about the modern music industry or does it want to be a cutesy love story between its lead characters? It’s unclear whether this movie actually cares what the world would be like if the Beatles didn’t exist or whether the idea was just a device that quickly gets forgotten?

It feels like a two-hour slog of a movie that’s been cut together using footage from several films that just happen to star Himesh Patel and Lily James. These are all movies I’d probably watch independently; the rom-com, the off-beat sci-fi, the idea of exploitation in the music industry, the Beatles biopic. But all together they’re a headache of ideas and unanswered questions.

But the real issue was the music. Because when we talk about Yesterday, we need to talk about The Beatles.

I’m well aware that I’m not the only person to say it but the Beatles have had a much bigger impact on culture the world over than this movie implies. While it does establish that the four members of the band do in fact exist in this world (in the most unpleasant attempt at fan service I think I’ve ever seen), they just didn’t make any music. 

But if that was the case, there would be so much about our cultural landscape that would be completely different. And of all the streams of consciousness this movie starts but doesn’t finish, this is the most interesting one with a lot of potential. 

The music is the thing that catapults Jack into stardom having spent a bit of time in his bedroom remembering a load of songs from their back catalogue. But it’s also the thing that’s thrown away at several points through the movie. The first time he plays ‘Let It Be’ for his parents makes for a really funny scene in which they don’t appreciate the gravity of what they’re about to hear.

Beyond that though, there are snippets of Beatles songs but no real performances. There are in-script references of some of the band’s biggest hits but nothing ever amounts to anything close to a love letter to The Beatles. While Yesterday keeps claiming that this music is some of the best ever to be written, there’s nothing in it that gives any reason why it was The Beatles that have been forgotten and not literally any other successful band. 

It would have made more sense to see Jack at the beginning of the movie as a huge Beatles fan, or at the very least even mention the band. If that was the case, it’s more understandable that he’d be able to remember the lyrics and composition of so much of their back catalogue. ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’? Granted, most people probably know that. But ‘Sexy Sadie’ and ‘For the Benefit of Mr Kite? ’ They’re nice references in the movie but aren’t the songs that changed the world, as this movie suggests.

I’m writing this as a Beatles fan who has a lot of great memories of listening to their music with my parents growing up. They’re a band I listen to pretty regularly and I think that’s probably what’s gotten under my skin so much. I love this band’s music and wanted the movie to feel the same way that Rocketman felt about Elton John’s music or Bohemian Rhapsody about Queen’s.

Yesterday is a better movie if the love story of it all is done away with. If it’s a film with The Beatles’ music at its heart, exploring the impact that the band has had on the world, Danny Boyle probably makes a really interesting entry into his already accomplished filmography.

Or going completely the other way, I can see a movie that’s got nothing to do with The Beatles and is simply a rom-com about a struggling musician who gets his big break and can’t hold on to his old life. I’d probably still enjoy that movie.

But to try and do everything at once just doesn’t work, no matter how hard it tries. Yesterday feels like a mis-step and that’s a real shame.

If you want a film with some of the fab four’s best songs at its heart, you’d be better off buying a DVD of A Hard Day’s Night from Amazon. 

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