We are living during a time of classic-rock resurgence on the big screen, thanks to Bohemian Rhapsody making approximately a bajillion dollars (only a slight exaggeration: the movie passed $900 million internationally) and Rocketman receiving quite positive critical reviews. But even given all that, I was not mentally prepared for the oppressive “Weren’t The Beatles fucking great?” vibe of Danny Boyle’s Yesterday.
The film (which our very own Hannah Sole is in!) relies on overwhelming nostalgia for The Beatles and their music to drive nearly all narrative decisions, and it’s because of that that most of the movie’s jokes go like this: “Whoa, this person doesn’t know who The Beatles are? What losers!” And unfortunately screenwriter Richard Curtis is more interested in spinning variations of that joke throughout Yesterday than building a believable arc and detailed identity for Lily James’s Ellie, the most important female character in the film. In fact, the greatest disservice Curtis’s script levels toward Ellie is tied directly to a joke about how great The Beatles were, a throwaway line that unravels a significant portion of Ellie’s life.
SPOILERS FOR YESTERDAY FOLLOW, FYI!
Yesterday focuses on two storylines at once: After an inexplicable worldwide power outage results in nearly everyone in aspiring singer-songwriter Jack Malik’s (Himesh Patel) life forgetting who The Beatles are, he makes the decision to start performing their songs as his own. He becomes phenomenally popular nearly overnight, but his immediate fame makes him wonder whether he’s doing the right thing by pretending he wrote “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and dozens more of The Beatles’ greatest hits. Meanwhile, his childhood best friend and manager Ellie (James), who has been in love with Jack for years, is shocked by all this music he created without telling her (because Jack lies to everyone, including Ellie), and believes that now that he’s the biggest star in the world, he’ll have no interest in her, a lowly high school math teacher. Whether Jack will realize what he’s doing is wrong, come clean, and end up with Ellie are the film’s questions, and because this is a Curtis film, Jack realizes what he’s doing is wrong, comes clean, and ends up with Ellie.
Much of this journey, though, is told from Jack’s point of view, and in fact, we only see his version of one of the pair’s formative experiences together: the school talent show where Jack performed as a child, the moment that Ellie both realized he had talent and began falling in love with him. That moment, Jack realizes, is what began their relationship all those years ago, and he was too foolish to see it.
The problem? Well, the problem is that very early in the film, Curtis establishes that because The Beatles don’t exist, neither does the ’90s megagroup Oasis. No Liam and Noel Gallagher, with their bickering brotherly feuds. No “Live Forever” from 1994’s Definitely Maybe, no “Don’t Look Back in Anger” or “Morning Glory” or “Champagne Supernova” from 1995’s (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. And, most importantly, no “Wonderwall,” the Oasis track that rocketed to the top of charts in Europe and the U.S. and that is one of the most prevailing sad anthems from the grunge era.
Yesterday gains some of its best humor from the moments when Jack searches online to confirm what is deleted from the universe’s memory, and his shock at the deletion of The Beatles goes a long way. Meanwhile, he’s not that shocked to see that Oasis is gone, because did you get it, Oasis just copied everything The Beatles did! (The movie treats this like a hilarious joke, but for some reason Coldplay and Ed Sheeran exist as they currently do in this universe, and to pretend that they aren’t irredeemably influenced by The Beatles is just silly.)
What Yesterday never explains is what people remember instead of the things that have been deleted. What do they think of instead of The Beatles? What do they recall instead of Oasis? And so the movie introduces this important scene of Jack performing at the talent show, and makes it the basis for why Ellie began her affection for her best friend, but oh, did I mention that the song Jack performs is Oasis’s “Wonderwall”? So if Oasis is wiped from everyone’s memory, what the hell does Ellie remember as one of the most formative experiences of her life?
This is the issue I keep coming back to when I consider Yesterday: That not only does the film severely underuse Lily James, who we know because of films like Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again! is capable of such charisma and energy, but that it also deprives her character Ellie of one of her most important memories. We don’t get any flashbacks to Ellie’s life without Jack in it; this moment is described as one of the most essential to who she becomes. But if Oasis is gone, for Ellie, what Jack performed that day is different, and whatever she felt that day might be different, too! But Yesterday thinks it does enough by making Jack come clean to Ellie about stealing The Beatles’ songs, and she has zero reaction to this. She’s fine with his lying, because he loves her now, and that’s enough.
I’m aware that a retort to any of this frustration can be, “Well, it’s a Richard Curtis film, what did you expect?” And I get it. Throughout nearly all of Curtis’s extensive romantic-comedy credits, female characters have been underwritten (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Love Actually, About Time), and so this isn’t a new issue. But it’s irritating to look back on Yesterday and all of the ways the film ignores the ramifications of its own central question, and to realize that the character who suffers primarily from this is the only female character we’re supposed to sympathize with in the film, to even like. Who cares about one of the most important moments in Ellie’s life when we can make fun of the Gallagher brothers, am I right? What a storytelling priority. I mean, couldn’t Curtis have just written Jack performing a song that wasn’t “Wonderwall”? Would that have been so hard?!
Image sources (in order of posting): Universal, YouTube/Yesterday, YouTube/Yesterday