Yesterday has one hell of a hook: Jack (Himesh Patel), a struggling singer-songwriter, hits his head and wakes up in a world where no one else remembers The Beatles, which is his ticket to long-awaited fame and glory. Nested within this story is a romantic dramedy about Jack and his best friend and manager, Ellie (Lily James), who is left behind when Jack takes off with “his” new music. There is just one problem, and it turns out to be a very big one—these two concepts don’t actually go together. Yesterday can’t decide what it wants to be: the Jack-and-Ellie romance or a more complicated story about how we define success. The element that could bridge those two things is The Beatles’ music, but strangely, Yesterday doesn’t actually do much with the songs. Sure, the soundtrack is AMAZING, but The Beatles do not connect thematically with the romantic storyline, and Yesterday is 100% uninterested in exploring a world missing a foundation text for contemporary pop culture.
“A world without The Beatles” is a wildly interesting premise. Once Jack realizes no one remembers The Beatles, he starts Googling to see what else is different about this new, alternate reality. It turns out: not much. Sure, there is no Oasis. But Coldplay still exists, and Ed Sheeran appears in Yesterday as himself, and his music sounds exactly the same. I’m not a massive Beatles fan and even I understand that without The Beatles, there is no Ed Sheeran. Or, if Ed Sheeran does still become a musician in a Beatles-less world, his music would sound very different. But Yesterday is totally uninterested in imagining what pop music would be if there was not that common indexing point. (This is also a world without Coke, which just means that everyone drinks Pepsi. Sorry, no, without Coke there is no Pepsi, that company would have gone kaput in the 1920s with no one to rescue it because no one saw the value in cola drinks without Coke’s success. The world of Yesterday either should have been chugging lemonade, or had some weird alternate cola Jack had never heard of.)
It's incredibly frustrating that Yesterday has SUCH a good hook and does absolutely nothing with it. Jack’s new world is exactly the same, just no one remembers The Beatles. There is no material difference. And then, worse, The Beatles’ music has nothing to do with Jack’s conflict between the fame he’s always wanted and Ellie’s love and the simple life they could have together. There are just all these dangling threads that never quite match up, which makes watching Yesterday frustrating. Patel is great, and James is as watchable as ever, but they spend most of the movie apart and even when they are together, they don’t have much chemistry. It is mystifying that Jack would consider throwing over his music career for such a lukewarm romance.
Yesterday also does not meaningfully address the issue of plagiarism. Is it even plagiarism if the music would no longer exist without Jack re-recording it? There are SO many directions Yesterday could take its premise, from examining the generational legacy of great art, to what responsibility we owe the art that moves us, to the moral conundrum of “creating” something that isn’t yours but also wouldn’t exist without you. Yesterday tackles none of it. Jack re-records The Beatles songs—the ones he can remember, anyway—exactly as they sounded originally. It could have been interesting and fun if Jack couldn’t help but put his own spin on the music; after all, he grew up with The Beatles, he’s been influenced by them, but yet he has also created his own sound. How would he reimagine that music from his own, unique perspective? Well he wouldn’t, apparently, wouldn’t even be tempted to rearrange a song or two. He also struggles to remember the lyrics to “Eleanor Rigby”—what if he didn’t quite remember the song right and the world got a new, slightly different version? He just doesn’t re-record that song, easy enough. And Jack spends much of the movie tormented by the knowledge he is claiming someone else’s work as his own, only to be let off the hook entirely, in the end. His angst was never necessary.
I am so incredibly frustrated by this movie. WHAT A PREMISE! And just NOTHING on the delivery, and the Jack and Ellie romance isn’t compelling enough to fill the void of all that unrealized potential. And I haven’t even gotten to the Extremely Bad Taste thing the movie does, but just know, there is an Extremely Bad Taste thing that completely kills whatever momentum Yesterday manages to scrape together by act three. Despite endless possibility, the sum total of “a world without The Beatles” is a mediocre romantic movie with a killer soundtrack.