I knew I had to see Yesterday the minute I saw the trailer. It had such a fun concept–the power goes out all over the world, and when it comes back up, failing musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) finds himself on an alternate Earth where the Beatles (and a few other random things we find out about over the course of the movie) simply never existed. Jack, who mostly remembers all of the Beatles songs, is faced with a choice: should he “write” all of those famous songs again and take that success for himself? The trailer already tells you that yes, he does. Hijinks ensue.
It’s a really fun, sweet movie that still has a lot to say about the value of art and the feeling of being an imposter–though in Jack’s case, his imposter syndrome is very real, considering he didn’t actually write the songs he’s selling. The film also does a great job of showing what a difference finding a willing audience makes. Arguably, Jack’s songwriting is not terribly brilliant on his own, but we still see him struggle through some tepid gigs where he’s being ignored when he’s playing his stolen Beatles songs. What starts getting the Beatles music back out in the world are two events: First, he’s lucky enough to find one person who really gets in to what he’s doing (Gavin, who helps him record demos and get his music out on the internet), and second, he’s lucky enough to fall on the ear of someone much bigger than he is (Ed Sheeran) who puts him in front of an audience that actually wants to listen. That’s when things take off.
I know it’s a conceit of the movie (and it’s getting put in every synopsis) that Jack’s success is an overnight thing, and it’s all carried on the backs of the brilliant songs that he didn’t actually write. But from the perspective of someone who has been laboring in the word mines for a while, that’s a very simplistic view–and the movie at least subtly acknowledges it. Jack’s a total, unknown failure… until he suddenly isn’t. Arguably, the Beatles songs are what finally bumped him into “being noticed” range, but if he couldn’t have performed them worth a damn, the words wouldn’t have done him any good either. Mostly, it puts me in mind of how many writers I’ve seen being touted as “overnight” successes when they’ve been chipping away at the thing for years. It’s all about getting the right piece in front of the right person at the right time.
Also, I’ll admit right here that I had no fucking idea what Ed Sheeran looked like, and didn’t realize he was playing himself until the credits said so. Go ahead, laugh. But I sure do have a lot of respect for Ed Sheeran and his sense of humor about himself, now.
A lot of the emotional focus of the movie does end up being about the relationship between Jack and his “manager” Ellie (Lily James), who has been carrying a torch for him for years. Once Jack starts to get famous, Ellie feels they’re no longer on equal footing… and also knows that he can’t give her the sort of relationship she wants. I had a lot of respect for Ellie knowing what she wanted, and not compromising on it. I have less respect for the movie later hitting on the “public declaration of love” trope, which is one I really dislike.
All in all, though, a very sweet movie, and one I thought was a lot of fun. I’ll also admit I’m enjoying watching music nerds rehashing SFF nerd discussions about ripple effects in alternate histories. This is probably one where the less you know about music history, the more you can just enjoy it and cheerfully ignore the flaws in the central conceit.
There is a thing or two more I will mention, but they are SPOILERS, so do not read further if you don’t want to be SPOILED.
The discussion of imposter syndrome in the movie are a little fraught, since Jack actually is an imposter. He feels horribly isolated not just because he feels he hasn’t earned his success and is faking it, but because he actually does have a horrible secret–he didn’t write any of the songs he’s claiming as his own. So really, he deserves to feel like an imposter, because he is.
It turns out there are at least two other people in the world that aren’t from this alternate Earth–they remember the Beatles like Jack does. I was expecting some sort of retribution on him for his lies, like them revealing him as an imposter. (Though when you think about it, that wouldn’t work so well anyway, since “The Beatles really wrote those songs!” in this alternate world would just be greeted with a puzzled, “Who?”) But the conclusion to their little arc was much more unexpectedly sweet–the small group bonding over being strangers in this world, and the two people telling Jack that they were just happy to hear the Beatles again at all. Which is where the movie does touch on the value of art, and how fundamentally important it was to these two people and their memories of themselves.
This also leads to Jack having a visit with an elderly John Lennon, which is honestly the one moment in the movie that made me cry. John Lennon playing wise sage for Jack, perhaps not so much. But just the thought of a world where he’d gotten a chance to grow old.
That the movie then gave Jack a chance to be a moral actor and decide that he would tell the truth–even if no one really understood it–and then put all of the songs out in the world for free for the sake of their own value is part of why I ended up liking it so much, I think. His reward isn’t a career writing his own songs, which I think is reasonable; there really isn’t anywhere for him to go at that point. He ends up having an ordinary, happy life with Ellie, which is really what was set up by the romance plot. I make a lot of barfy noises about the ultimate happy conclusion in so many movies being the formation of a heterosexual nuclear family (and literally, they have two kids, a son and a daughter, who look like their respective parents, yeesh) because I’m so over it, but it’s the satisfying ending here.