With a little help from his friends.
Pity poor Jack Malik.
Played by Himesh Patel in the Danny Boyle-directed romantic comedy Yesterday, he's the picture of today's struggling songwriter. Nobody to listen to his original, quirky songs, except his devoted manager Ellie (Lily James) and a few pint-swilling local pals in Gorleston, England.
No market for his creativity. He's about ready to hang up his guitar for good, when a global blackout caused by a solar flare does something really strange: it wipes out the Beatles and their music from history.
And not just the Beatles. A Google search by the increasingly bewildered and frantic Jack shows that many other things like Coca-Cola, and the Beatle-copying band Oasis no longer exist in the world.
What does a reasonably talented but largely ignored musician do in such a situation? Well, as you no doubt know from the trailer, Jack decides to pass off the Beatles' catalogue as his own, amazing friends by tossing out songs like In My Life and The Long and Winding Road as though they just came to him. That takes chutzpah.
Yesterday, which opens here July 24, is a strange mix a blessing and a curse for Beatles fans. It features all those great songs, and more, in an imaginative fantasy that also delves into the limits of creativity and the true nature of authorship.
It's a great thought experiment What if John, Paul, George and Ringo never formed a band? Would those songs still somehow pop up through endless random combinations, like a trillion monkeys bashing out Shakespeare on typewriters? How would our lives be different without the Beatles in them? Patel and Lily James have chemistry as struggling musician and adoring manager who don't realize they love each other (duh!). Yet it's written by Richard Curtis, who has the wit to sustain this premise for, oh, about 45 minutes before the familiar waves of treacle start to seep in around the edges.
(No time to get into whether Love Actually is a heartwarming classic or a cloying wretch-fest you can decide amongst yourselves.) The writer of Notting Hill and Bridget Jones' Diary has perfected a particularly British take on the Hollywood rom-com formula.
And that can sometimes be a mixed bag. You don't have to be Maharishi Yogi to see that Ellie has had a lifetime crush on Jack, ever since he was a schoolboy playing Wonderwall at a class talent show of course, Jack is too much of a doofus to ever see it, and they dance around the usual British who's-going-to-say-it-first and let's-avoid-embarrassment-unto-death moments until you want to plant your foot in someone's backside already and tell them to MAKE A MOVE.
Yesterday has a great premise the Beatles don't exist, so there's a great deal less magic in the world and it almost fumbles it all by portraying Jack as the most callow, douchebaggy singer/songwriter you can imagine. Like, literally, his first thought after realizing no one except himself knows the Beatles ever existed is: How do I pass off their life's work as my own? I mean, who does that? So sympathy points are immediately lost, compounded by the fact that many people not just long-suffering Ellie, but real music producers, shark-like LA power managers and even Ed Freaking Sheeran immediately realize how special Jack's newfound songs are.
So Jack's ego grows to Blue Meanie proportions. But let's take a sad song and make it better.
Yesterday is also an open-hearted love letter to Beatle fans. There are wonderful moments here, as when Jack slowly tries to reconstruct Beatles songs and lyrics from sheer memory, even venturing to Liverpool for inspiration.
It's a gas to see Patel bash out classic hits on stage or in a studio, as though discovering them for the first time, and watch how those hooks dig themselves into listeners' ears. The charm of the movie also lies in the performances, including Patel, James, Kate McKinnon as the embodiment of music biz evil, and Jack's bushy-haired buddy Rocky (Joel Fry, fulfilling the same purpose as Rhys Ifans in Notting Hill, I suppose).
Sheeran gamely plays himself and has some fine moments, including a songwriting showdown with Jack, in which he humbly pronounces himself Salieri to Jack's Mozart. Hey dude: An oddly competitive Ed Sheeran takes a liking to Jack's pilfered tunes, and helps him become a star.
This is where Yesterday has the potential to tap into deeper matters. There's a dark possibility in this premise, about true authorship and originality in an era of deepfake videos and viral social media success.
In one scene, the corporate media types try to pitch Jack's upcoming album as a solo project, "in a day and age where every release has 12 producers and 10 songwriters." So they decide to call it "One Man Only.
" You can see Jack struggle with the secret that these great songs don't really belong to him, but to four men and to the world. Sure, there is the theory, going back centuries, that creativity is a kind of net, with people grabbing similar ideas out of thin air and presenting them at the same time.
But here, Jack is basically a straight-up plagiarist. (Strangely, there does actually exist a 2011 graphic novel, also titled Yesterday, written by a French musician named David Blot, with an oddly similar premise: a millennial is sent back in time to 1960, and decides to record the Beatles' music before the band is formed, thus becoming a huge global phenomenon.
Hmm Somewhat similar, no? You can read it for free at bit.ly/YESTERDAY-2011-TheGraphicNovel) There are other issues hinted at here, such as what is the point of being original and pursuing your creative passion if no one ever notices or cares? It's the classic philosophical conundrum: "If a tree falls in the woods, and no one adds it on Spotify, does it make a sound?" Yet, I reiterate: Richard Curtis wrote this.
So instead of exploring the darker waters of creativity, the script retreats to safer, rom-com turf, spending too much time peddling a romantic subplot that ends up exactly where you think it will. He even uses John Lennon as essentially a prop to reinforce Hallmark sentiments, ignoring the fact that Lennon was a much more complicated artistic soul.
(On the other hand, in this alternate universe, we at least get to see Lennon more at peace with the universe, and lasting for more years on earth.) We've seen a tsunami of music-oriented films lately, from Bohemian Rhapsody to Rocketman to, er, Mamma Mia! Here I Go Again (also starring Lily James).
It seems the tenacity of pop music, particularly from generations past, is in no danger of abating if anything, it's experiencing a half-life, coming up for a new star moment every few years. The Beatles, of course, outlast them all.
The ultimate strength of Yesterday may be that it transcends a sketchy execution of a clever premise, and makes us realize, once again, the very special nature of the Beatles' music. Follow author @scottgarceau