Directed by Danny Boyle, the British romantic comedy film Yesterday features songs from The Beatles. It made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival before being released in cinemas everywhere by Universal Pictures a few months later. It generally received mixed reviews due to its simplicity and seemingly lack of connection to The Beatles’ music.
The film stars Himesh Patel as struggling musician Jack Malik who gets into an accident and wakes up in an alternate reality where no one but him remembers the popular English rock band, The Beatles. Alongside Malik is Lily James who plays Ellie, his childhood friend, current manager and possibly his only fan. Kate McKinnon and Ed Sheeran also made appearances in the film as supporting characters.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
While cycling home one night, Malik gets hit by a bus at the same time the world experiences a mass blackout. When he wakes up, he finds Ellie who’s been visiting him at the hospital and keeping him company while he recovers. After being discharged, his friends throw him a surprise ‘welcome home’ party with gifts. Because his guitar got wrecked in the accident, Ellie bought him a new one. At his friends’ request, he tries out the guitar with the song “Yesterday” and to his shock, his friends have never heard of it or The Beatles.
Malik soon realises that the rest of the world haven’t either so he decides to perform Beatles music and pass it off as his own. That’s when he starts finding success that leads to an invitation by Ed Sheeran to be his opening act in Moscow and later, global fame.
And left out in the cold there is Ellie who gets brushed off after confessing her love for him.
But in the days leading up to the launch of his debut album, Malik discovers that being popular and successful like this isn’t everything it’s all cracked up to be. From Sheeran’s suggestion to change the song to “Hey Dude” to producers rejecting his suggested album names, he realises that he’s no longer in control of his own career despite having all these great songs.
Frustrated and heartbroken, he meets with a few people and gets an epiphany that eventually puts him on a successful quest to set things right with both Ellie and his career.
In a glance, Yesterday may seem like a feel-good movie with a straightforward plot, happy ending and awesome soundtrack. But if you pay close enough attention, there’s actually so much more you can get out of it.
First off, the film does a great job painting Malik’s character and background right from the start: a struggling singer-songwriter from Suffolk who usually holds public performances in front of nobody except his manager and childhood friend Ellie.
Malik used to be a teacher but then takes up a part-time job as a store clerk where he is clearly not happy and unfulfilled. His boss can see it too and tells him that he’s not keen to offer him a full-time position despite his good performance. Malik’s response? He just nonchalantly says that he’ll think about it.
From here, you can already tell that Malik is serious about his music but is just very frustrated for not getting his big break yet. As a result, he becomes kind of self-absorbed as he doesn’t even notice Ellie’s crush on him. I mean, she even drives him everywhere and gets him gigs despite working as a full-time schoolteacher. Like, how do you even find the time unless you really really care about someone.
Malik on the other hand is more interested in becoming a famous musician. So much so that he’s willing to secretly use Beatles songs like his own and ultimately choose his career over her at one point. It’s only when all seems too late, after so many chances that Ellie gives, he finally realises that what he wants is her, not fame. And cue the song “Yesterday”! The lyrics seem to speak their storyline.
Another thing I love about the film is its social commentary on the dark and greedy side of the music industry and its impact on musicians and culture. Even if you’re not a big fan of The Beatles, you’d know the crazy levels of their fame and how it influences society. Whatever they did, ate, smoked, people wanted to follow and be like them. And in this digital age, popularity is measured by how many likes and followers you have on social media.
This is seen in the film where fans are furiously uploading videos of Malik performing in Moscow and commenting on them. Even Hammer quickly snatches him up to offer to sign him to her label with an amusing villain-like speech about fame and drinking the chalice. starts changing his image because his current natural look isn’t good enough. The producers also make use of the internet as a way to gain hype before his album launch.
What’s even funnier is that Malik’s album name ideas get rejected and the song gets changed to “Hey Dude” because it’s “better”, even though they’re all the actual Beatles’ names and music. This shows that global fame and success aren’t all about the music and musicians don’t always get the final say in their own projects. A symbolic presentation of this can be seen in the scene where Malik is at a meeting with a ridiculous big number of producers (like a whole squad of them just filling the entire room and giving their opinions) to discuss his album launch.
I’ve read other reviews that didn’t like the film because of its lack of connection with The Beatles and how the film could easily be made without the band and their music. Yeah, maybe, but it would still need a truly popular band and there’s possibly none out there like The Beatles. The Beatles were not just famous and well-loved, they were also iconic. And their music transcend time like no other.
For example, the song “Hey Jude” was written by Paul McCartney as “a paean to Lennon’s son, Julian” when his parents divorced. But to Lennon, he interpreted it as a “benediction” from McCartney.
“The words ‘go out and get her’ – subconsciously – [Paul] was saying, ‘Go ahead, leave me.’ On a conscious level, he didn’t want me to go ahead. The angel in him was saying, ‘Bless you.’ The devil in him didn’t like it at all, because he didn’t want to lose his partner,” Lennon said in an interview with Playboy.
And to the millions of fans? When The Beatles performed this song in their first public performance in more than two years on David Frost’s TV show in 1968, the audience joined them in the “na na na hey Jude” refrain and the song became an “expression of something bigger, of the sort of possibilities of community that the band, at its best, signified to the world outside.”
This ultimately gave the band a much needed inspiration to perform for live audiences again.
Watch the performance here:
And that’s perhaps the humble intention of the film: a celebration of the world’s favourite band and their music.
The movie may seem simplistic but the plot is far more layered in its tribute to The Beatles. It has its fair share of funny moments (that you have to watch yourself) and combined with Patel’s portrayal of a sort of lovable jerk character who eventually redeems himself and his great attempts at covering the songs without imitating the band, the movie is a fun watch. But most of all, the movie is really about the music and the joy it brings. Just like how the 1968 “Hey Jude” performance did for The Beatles.
And if you’re a big Beatles fan, I strongly suggest that you watch this. Without giving away any more of the plot, let’s just say that there’s a surprise part based on a real-life incident that left even me a little teary-eyed.
– The songs hands down
– All the Easter eggs (so witty!)
– Patel’s overall performance
– Feel-good story
– Cheesy romance plot
– Very predictable storyline