Brow Beat

The Song, Not the Singer

Yesterday is a screenwriter’s fantasy about how important songwriting is.

Hamish Patel and Ed Sheeran sit in a red-tinted room.
Hamish Patel and Ed Sheeran in Yesterday.
Universal Pictures

This post contains spoilers for Yesterday.

The Richard Curtis–penned Yesterday is set in a universe where the Beatles never existed, but it’s made to be consumed in an environment where the legend of their musical singularity is very much alive. After a sparsely attended gig he swears is the last he’ll ever play, struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) gets into a bicycle accident, and when he awakens, he realizes that, for everyone else in the world, it’s as if the Beatles never existed. When Jack first plays the movie’s title song for his friends, they’re gobsmacked: How did he come up with that?

But Jack soon discovers that even having exclusive access to one of the greatest catalogs in pop-music history isn’t enough to get people’s attention. When he excitedly gathers his parents in the living room to play them his “new song,” they politely indulge him, but the fact that the song is “Let It Be” doesn’t prevent them from getting up to grab a beer or answer the door. He fares no better at the local pub, where “I Want to Hold Your Hand” fails to make a dent in the drunken chatter. Perhaps, he reluctantly concludes, the problem was him all along.

The rest of Yesterday is devoted to proving him wrong. It’s not long before Ed Sheeran, of all people, finds Jack’s songs on a website and invites him on tour. From there the dominoes just keep falling: Jack becomes the most talked-about new artist on the planet, hailed as “the Shakespeare of pop music,” and is poised to become a major star. But Jack had it right the first time: The problem is him. There’s no faulting the songs on the movie’s soundtrack, which also include “She Loves You,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and “Here Comes the Sun,” but the performances—which mostly consist of Patel accompanied by a solo, usually acoustic, guitar—are insipid and frictionless, the kind you might overhear while ordering a Bloody Mary to go with your omelet. The question posed in response to the trailers announcing Yesterday’s premise was invariably the same: Would the Beatles’ songs still be hits today? But the more pertinent question is whether Jack’s specific renditions would make a dent in the charts, and the answer, to my ears, is an unequivocal no.

For evidence, allow me to the cite the following: very nearly every Beatles cover ever. We don’t need to guess what the Beatles’ songs might sound like if someone else had recorded them. A few minutes on Spotify, or, better yet, YouTube, is all it takes to prove that it’s manifestly possible to turn the silk purse of a Lennon-McCartney composition into an aural sow’s ear. (In my case, all I had to do was walk out of the movie theater, where Beatles karaoke had been set up on the sidewalk and a young man was gamely squawking his way through “All You Need Is Love.”) The Beatles weren’t just songwriters. They were performers and audio innovators, so much so that they gave up trying to play their songs live in order to focus on how they sounded on record.

Jack, by contrast, barely seems to give any thought to how his music sounds, and neither does Yesterday. As far as the movie is concerned, music is a thing that is made—not only primarily, but only—by men with guitars, preferably unaccompanied, and certainly un-AutoTuned. Unless you count Jack’s friend Ellie (Lily James), who joins him in the recording studio on an apparent lark, there aren’t any female musicians in the movie at all, and the only time rap comes up at all is when Jack’s roadie razzes Sheeran about his mediocre flow. Part of the movie’s conceit is that other cultural mainstays, like Coca-Cola and cigarettes, have also disappeared, so perhaps all of hip-hop vanished as well, but if that’s so, Jack doesn’t seem to miss it.

Like all great pop music, the Beatles’ was rooted in its time. Paul McCartney modeled his bass playing on Revolver on the sound of Motown’s James Jamerson; that album inspired the Beach Boys to make Pet Sounds, which prompted the Beatles to respond with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If John Lennon and Paul McCartney were writing songs right now, there’s every chance they’d be doing it on a laptop instead of a guitar. But it’s not surprising that Curtis, one of exceedingly few brand-name screenwriters in a climate dominated by auteur directors and IP-driven product, would be drawn to a story in which what really matters is who wrote a song, not who sings it or how. (There is, however, a toothy irony in the fact that the idea for Yesterday came from another writer, Jack Barth, and that it has strong parallels, including the title, to a 2011 graphic novel by David Blot.) The movie’s unstated rationale is that the world needs the Beatles’ songs even if it can’t have the Beatles. As he’s getting ready to launch his career in earnest, Jack is confronted backstage by two people who also remember the Beatles, and for one heart-stopping second he thinks the jig is up. But it turns out they’ve come to thank him for putting the songs back into the world, where they were always meant to be.

Toward the end of Yesterday, when Jack starts to wonder if his drive for success led him astray, he turns for advice to a familiar figure, though one we might not have expected to exist in this universe: John Lennon. But this John, a humble artist who lives in a cottage so close to the seaside it’s practically in the sea, doesn’t sound much like the irascible, sharp-tongued figure we know. (Not since Forrest Gump has an iconic figure been exhumed to such little purpose.) The advice he has for Jack sounds more like McCartney-esque treacle: “Tell the girl you love that you love her, and always tell the truth to everyone whenever you can.” It sounds, in fact, like Richard Curtis. But John seems content, and he’s lived a long and happy life. The world needs the Beatles’ songs. But the Beatles, Yesterday seems to say, are better off without them.