How brain-dead do you have to be to enjoy Yesterday? It requires a willed ignorance about how culture works and — even harder to fathom — a careless disregard for The Beatles and contempt for every aspect of history they represented. While one can have disdain for any of history’s great artists (you can’t please everybody), Yesterday stands out for director Danny Boyle’s and writer Richard Curtis’s special commitment to cultural revision. They turn history upside down through lighthearted rom-com: American Idol meets Love Actually.
Here’s how: In Yesterday’s asinine fantasy, an unnamed event (electromagnetic field? solar or lunar eclipse?) causes the world’s grid to go dark. Following a biking accident during the blackout, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a Londoner of Indian descent, wakens from a coma and realizes he is the only person on earth who remembers The Beatles.
Jack works at a big-box store but strives toward a career as a pop singer-songwriter; he’s managed by his enthusiastic high-school friend Ellie (Lily James). Performing The Beatles song catalogue from memory, Jack takes credit for authorship. The quality of the material makes him a star, even bigger than Ed Sheeran who, in a cameo role as himself, first shows support, then rivalry, then jealousy — all conflict resolved in a big Wembley Stadium performance, where the spectacle of fame and mass adulation becomes the movie’s ultimate point.
Every review you read praising this twaddle adds to the collapse of cultural values. The real meaning of Yesterday is to be found in its banal, what-if novelty. Boyle and Curtis ask us to consider life without the spiritual, intellectual, and moral values we used to hold in common but have now heedlessly forsaken. Jack’s unflinching theft of The Beatles’ art is worse than copyright infringement; it represents Millennial indifference to personal expression.
The Beatles made the best of showbiz apparatus, beyond anyone else who was fortunate enough to be challenged with that opportunity — except perhaps Frank Sinatra. But the high idea of pop that they epitomized, in which new expressions of feeling become everyone’s emotional property, is disgraced by Jack’s reluctance to fess up about his borrowing and by the filmmakers’ careless exploitation of Beatles music simply for unworthy, feel-good familiarity. (Each song cue here is as sickening as The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” being used to sop up emotion in the Toy Story 4 trailer.)
Boyle and Curtis pose as sentimentalists but are actually cynics. Known, respectively, for Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, and Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, they’re responsible for some of the most crudely calculated films ever made. This team of hacks is content with Jack’s cultural appropriation. Their weak satire shows Jack’s acquiescence to the music industry as it contrives his solo artist (one-man-only) brand. He faces no ethical issues (distracted by Lily Collins’s aggressively cute romantic subplot), so the brunt of this false sophistication is carried by SNL performer Kate McKinnon whose caricature of American greed is unshaded and grating. She’s here to be both admired and ridiculed but is essentially an emblem of this era’s unfunny rot.
Patel’s Jack is Boyle’s and Curtis’s patsy — a patronized figure saluting Mayor Sadiq Kahn’s new ethnically diverse London. Jack’s self-deprecating egotism recalls Russell Brand, whose regional British humor proved unexportable. Brown-skin Patel must represent Boyle’s apology for the ethnic slander of Slumdog Millionaire, but he cannot match The Beatles’ wit, which, together and separately, charmed the world. Instead, pairing Patel with runty Sheeran signifies our culture’s decline. Yesterday’s impure pop-music culture is infected with craven TV game-show culture (just as Slumdog Millionaire infected Indian film culture with TV’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire). Sheeran’s infernal hit-making knack produces American Idol dreck indistinguishable from Adam Levine’s for The Voice. These low-level pop stars define a pitiful pop-music era in which The Beatles’ art and originality are unappreciated.
Boyle directs a flashy Jack montage insensitively timed to “Carry That Weight.” A marketing exec (Lamorne Morris) complains that titling Jack’s debut as “The White Album” presents “some diversity issues.” And a dumb running joke mocks “Hey Jude” because it’s not Coldplay’s “Fix You.” But then, “Fix You” isn’t even Linkin Park’s “Waiting for the End,” or Oasis’s “Go Let It Out,” or Robbie Williams’s “Angels” if you want to cite sensitive, power-ballad generational anthems. The steady decay of sensibility celebrated by Yesterday should be mortifying to anyone who has ever liked a Beatles song.
Yesterday’s obtuse view of music culture is unacceptable after the revelations of Vox Lux. Yesterday has the narrative idiocy of a Broadway jukebox musical, but its fake nostalgia proves that we forgot — or lost sight of — what a world-unifying culture means.
Yesterday proposes a world without The Beatles. But, really, what if the judgmental media, from HBO and insensitive pundits to censorious radio stations, had all had their way earlier this year and we were forced to live in a world without Michael Jackson’s great art?
In this tragic new world, taste and feeling are ignored for fame and group-think correctness. That’s the essence of Millennial revisionism in which significant artists from D. W. Griffith and Lillian Gish to Kate Smith, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles (all put on the same level as cigarettes, Coca-Cola, and Harry Potter) are dismissed without popular outcry because of a despotic political mandate that no one questions. Yesterday entertains this possibility as if it were fun.