‘Yesterday’ is based on the silly premise of a young singer from the North East Coast of England losing consciousness after a bus accident, and waking up to find that no one, apart from himself, knows who the Beatles are. When he Googles ‘The Beatles’ he finds only insect references. So being a passingly good musician, he writes down the lyrics of their most iconic songs from memory and sets them to the instrumentation he remembers them by. When people hear him play the music on the guitar or piano, they are charmed by the evocative words, delighted by the original tunes, and ask him who wrote and composed them. Getting a blank stare whenever he says ’The Beatles’, he resigns himself to a sojourn of plagiarism, and claims that he did.
From doing the occasional gig, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), an Englishman of Asian extraction – a young, dark faced man surrounded by empathetic Englishmen and women – goes from local TV shows to celebrity status in Los Angeles. He is assisted in this transition by pop star Ed Sheeran, who, playing himself, is enchanted by the hauntingly beautiful songs he hears Jack sing, and is curious to know how an ordinary musician, little heard of before, can suddenly be so prolific, and come up with one masterpiece after another. The lyrics are clearly sourced from poignant real life experiences, and he wants to know what they are.
But Jack is a character from romantic escapism, a man in love with the nice teacher (Lily James) who used to double up as his music manager, and with whom he wants to settle down to a life in cheery England. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the world from which the songs came from. They came, the best of them, from genteel poverty, from middle class Liverpool, with bitter sweet memories of a Penny Lane, or the loneliness of an Eleanor Rigby, or the sadness of a Father Mckenzie.
The presumption of the film is that Jack’s world has been hijacked by a music that only he has the power to transmit. He is the ‘Oracle’ of ‘The Beatles’. And the thinking in the movie goes that in this, the era of the unconnected and unfeeling millennials, who have no memory or knowledge of musical history, other than that recorded on the internet, it is up to him, Jack Malik, to re-create the missing music that once enriched our world.
In his previous films, director Danny Boyle has made quite a fetish of young people and their memory baggages. Characters in films like ‘Trainspotting’ and ’Slumdog Millionaire’ and ’127 Hours’ are fixated on memory, the notion of how it shapes personality and defines both the past and the future.
But in ‘Yesterday’, the music of John, Paul, George and Ringo, is relegated to yesterday, when the Beatles were alive and well. It is suggested that the world has survived quite well without them, and it is hinted that the individual Beatles themselves might have enjoyed happier lives had they not been so staggeringly successful as a band.
This is an unfortunate Rom-com approach to music, history and cinema, and it trivialises the director’s own concerns about the erasure of memory. Surely, there are better ways of sharing the music of ‘The Beatles’. This perspective looks more like an excuse to play their music on the big screen and gain some mileage from it.
Apart from the occasional beautiful rendition of an individual song, there is no exploration of, or curiosity on, the astonishing level of creativity that went into the production of that music. This is disappointing.