Twelve years ago, Across The Universe stumbled into theaters. Filled with incoherent plot, psychedelic scenes, and tons of cringy on-the-nose references to songs, it was quite the mixed bag. I never enjoyed the film, although the renditions of the songs themselves were well done. Having seen Yesterday this weekend, however, consider this an apology to Across the Universe. Because with all of its faults, at least the 2007 film was interesting.
Yeseterday introduced itself to Beatles fans around the world with an audacious central thesis: “what if the Beatles never existed?” I know this made some fans excited, hopeful we’ll finally get a quality movie about the Beatles without, you know, directly involving the Beatles. The more cynical like myself did not go in with such hope. I didn’t have faith that anyone could pull off such a premise in just a two hour movie. To my surprise, Yesterday solved that issue by just not really addressing the premise at all.
A world without the Beatles wouldn’t sound the same at all. The impact that the band had on the world cannot be overestimated. But Yesterday avoids considering any of the larger consequences. Really, there seems to be no consequences at all aside from the fact that the music never existed. Well, there’s a quick joke made that Oasis doesn’t exist either, but that’s about it. It’s not only Oasis who would disappear without the Beatles. The band made it possible (read: marketable) to be a rock group who wrote their own music and forges their own path. You can’t name a rock group from 1964-present that wasn’t impacted by their music.
Our star Malik certainly wouldn’t recognize a lot of what was happening in the music industry. Besides, they specifically mention that Wonderwall was the song that won him the talent show when Ellie first fell for him; what did he play instead?! None of this was even slightly considered. Ed Sheeran is still making Shape of You (which, if I was told I could trade a Beatles song disappearing for never hearing that again, I would probably take the deal). I was so frustrated the whole time by how little losing the Beatles seemed to matter.
In fact, the entire story feels as safe and low-stakes as possible. The skeleton of the story is a basic rom-com combined with a rags-to-riches. Yet Ellie always made herself available to Malik, he never seemed to really suffer for his craft, and it was made clear that he could have easily gotten away with taking all the song credit. The big question was whether Malik would decide to 1) be rich and famous or 2) be comfortably happy in a supportive environment with loving parents and friends. Talk about a Sophie’s choice.
It finds its groove (and a purpose) when Kate McKinnon comes in and steals the show. Her over-the-top portrayal of a greedy record executive was hilarious. It removed any subtlety in the criticism of today’s music industry vs. the Beatles (which is not as stark as they made it out to be). Sadly, this storyline was muddled by Malik’s lack of commitment to anything. Sure, he fought to go to Liverpool, but aside from that, his musical career was pushed forward by Ellie, then Sheeran, then the record execs, and finally the random stalkers.
The film looses its grove again when they decide to make the two stalkers boring, benevolent fans instead of some kind of roadblock. They lead Malik to what in my opinion was one of the worst choices that the film could have gone in. John Lennon is alive! What was intended to be a touching scene was just laugh-out-loud, ham-fisted nonsense. So now we were to assume that it’s not John Paul George and Ringo who disappeared, they just somehow didn’t make music? Even though Lennon is shown to still have an interest in at least visual art? The idea that Paul McCartney especially would exist but not be a musician requires so many leaps in logic it defies understanding. But the film eschews these pitfalls for a cheap way to make some Beatles fans feel something in a movie with an absurd romantic plot that I can’t imagine anyone got wrapped up in.
Yesterday did not have enough of anything to make it worthy of the Beatles music. The stakes weren’t big enough, the decisions weren’t impactful enough, and there weren’t nearly enough Beatles references to make it worth it. I ended up having more questions than answers, but not in a fun way where I wanted to discuss it with other people. As I left the theater and got in my car, I just shrugged, turned on Abbey Road, and thought about how there was actually a movie that made me pine for Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood.