Some films have premises too outlandish for audiences to simply suspend their disbelief for. Cars, for me, is one such film, as it begs too many distracting questions for me to actually engage with the film in the way it wants me to. Are the cars born as babies and grow to adulthood? Do they have restrooms? Is gas in this world as frequent as water? If not, how did they develop the technology to create gasoline before dying off as a species? These are pedantic, I know, but there are simply too many possible implications that are too distracting from – and in this case, far more interesting that – Cars itself. Films with such crazy premises can succeed if they examine the implied consequences of their rules enough to put the viewer at ease (to draw more from the Pixar catalog, Ratatouille and Toy Story 4 do a lot of legwork to acknowledge the oddity of their worlds).
Danny Boyle’s Yesterday, though, suffers from Cars syndrome in that it simply asks too much of its audience without giving them enough in return. The world of Yesterday is the world as we know it today, and Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is a failing musician in it. After countless years of simply playing pubs and birthday parties as one about to rock, Jack decides after his biggest gig – a crummy tent with maybe five people in it at an otherwise big British festival – to call it quits. On his bike ride home, Jack is hit by a bus at the exact moment all electricity across the globe shuts off. He wakes up in mostly the same world with one notable difference: The Beatles never existed. Jack sees the opportunity before him and begins passing some of the group’s most seminal songs off as his own. In turn he becomes the biggest pop star in the world.
Immediately the mind is filled with countless alternate reality questions. If The Beatles never existed, how can literally any of the pop music we have enjoyed for the past 50 years exist? What caused this mass memory blackout? Was there an equivalent cultural phenomenon to The Beatles in this world? What did they sound like? The film, in response, shrugs and asks us to simply go with it. Which can be fine. Avengers: Endgame pulled a similar trick (this is not going a spoiler, so please settle down) when it asks the audience to believe that the future cannot be changed by changing the past. It makes little sense, but we go with it because instead of diving into time travel gobblety-gook that no one cares about, it spends its time giving us a strong portrait of heroes in grief. Yesterday, then, could get me to be okay with the ludicrous idea that nothing has changed without The Beatles if it gives me an otherwise strong movie.
Unfortunately Yesterday is interested in no more than being a conventional rise-to-stardom picture. Jack leaves his small town friends behind in pursuit of fame and fortune, changes with his rising status, is rejected by his small town friends, keeps rising up, grows remorseful over his lust for wealth, blah blah blah. It is a movie seen far too many times. And for a movie that puts all its chips in on the cache of The Beatles, Yesterday has little interest in the band itself. While critics, audiences, and pop star Ed Sheeran see Jack’s songs as the best songs ever written, they are not very integral to the film. Yesterday could just as easily substitute the mop-tops’ hits with original songs and the film would play out no differently. The movie seems to think acknowledging the timelessness of The Beatles’ work is a strong enough love letter to the group. But by ignoring all of the ways the world would be different without The Beatles in order to pursue a by-the-books perils-of-fame movie, Yesterday does exactly what its lead character does: it uses The Beatles to make itself look like a seminal work of art rather than the stale heel of Wonderbread that it is.
What makes Yesterday‘s complete waste of its premise even more frustrating is the glimmers it has of the movie it could be. The cast is genuinely stellar, even if given one-note roles to work with. Lily James stars as Jack’s hometown romance, and the chemistry between James and Patel is deeply palpable. Even if the will-they-won’t-they arc they are given is easy to predict, the two actors give their characters enough humor and charm to make their moments on-screen together the best scenes Yesterday has. In their conversations we also learn what other cultural touchstones have disappeared, as Jack casually mentions cigarettes and Oasis only to find in a quick cutaway Google that they (and others I won’t spoil simply due to their hilarity) have gone away. Of course those lead to more questions, and while I can overlook them as they are used as genuinely great jokes, I can’t help but wonder what the Idiocracy version of this movie would look like where the pop-culture is wholly different without five or so components.
Even with its charming components, Yesterday is unable to rise above the Dark Web conspiracizing its premise prompts because it has no interest in trying. It ignores the implications of its universe which are, just like Cars, far more interesting than the movie we get. I don’t want my criticisms of film to be about what a film could be rather than what it is, but the nature of Yesterday‘s hypothetical insist that the mind wander toward its butterfly effects – someone has to ask those questions, and unfortunately it has to be the audience rather than the film itself. In those consequences of a Beatle-less world is a true testament to the timeless value of the band, and if Yesterday claims to be a love letter to the group it would focus on the damage without them rather than assuming everything would be the same.
You can follow Adrian on Twitter @APBryant32 for more thoughts on film and consistent reminders that Beatle-Mania never died.