‘Yesterday’ Rises Above Its Gimmick… Mostly

Yesterday is every musician’s dream born of a What If hypothetical: a Y2K-like event causes everyone in the world to forget the Beatles ever existed except for one man. The man is struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who seizes the mass amnesia as an opportunity to make his dream come true and co-opt the Beatles catalog as his own. Much of what follows is a rise-to-stardom tale sprinkled with unrequited love, imposter syndrome (but for real this time), and a whole lotta catchy ass Beatles songs. 

It’s to Yesterday’s credit that it doesn’t rely on its elevator pitch, because it could have, and then would have become the movie I thought I was going to see. The hypothetical works better than it should because the film is open to examining the consequences. An early example: before Jack realizes that the Beatles only exist to him, everyone thinks he’s written their songs. He’s routinely flabbergasted by everyone’s cursory judgment of songs that he deems to be masterpieces, rendering him an egoist, ensuing hilarity. That his friends and family would consider him suddenly so very self-centered is the logical extension of an alternate reality that feels both novel and familiar. It also unveils Yesterday’s secret weapon. 

Well, not so secret. It got you to see the movie. If you saw the trailer, no doubt you were taken by the adorable irony of the hypothetical. This referential irony – not at all to be confused with dramatic irony, because no – is part of the reason why the MCU has succeeded beyond all reason. Audiences find value in easter eggs and having theories being proven right. They enjoy being in on the joke. 

Yesterday rewards you for paying attention to culture. Or, the less cynical take: for being a part of the culture at large and for appreciating art. 

But referential irony means you’re a step ahead of every character at all times, which makes you feel smart, which results in laughter. With no Google search to deliver lyrics, because, after all, the Beatles songs don’t technically exist, Jack struggles to remember the songs. But we know. His endless quest to remember the words to “Eleanor Rigby” (“There’s rice in it!”) is funny because the clever editing and Jack’s swearing is funny but also funny because you want to scream at the screen, “IT’S FATHER MACKENZIE WHO DARNS THE SOCKS!” because you know something that that guy doesn’t. Referential irony recontextualizes your preexisting knowledge so that one joke becomes two jokes: one to laugh at and the other because you get it

Yesterday has a lighter hand than most films (read: American films) would when it comes to its referential jokes. All of the Picasso Lines in the trailer are sprinkled throughout the movie so it’s not as insufferable as it could have been. And many of them are undercut by a Google search sight gag that shows the most obvious answers (beetles not Beatles), so they’re not the full punchline. It’s a clever antidote to way-too-easy jokes. 

If you’re sensing a bit of skepticism from me, it’s totally there. I enjoyed Yesterday, I really, truly did, but I’m still trying to reconcile the (yes, well-executed) hypothetical with the gimmickry of referential irony. Why do people need to feel smarter than the thing they’re watching in order to enjoy it? But then, if the gimmick makes more people feel more involved in the thing they’re watching, how can that be a bad thing? Is it cheap? Maybe. Bad? No. I’d probably feel more irate about the gimmick if not for the fact that the referential irony doesn’t get in the way of the movie as a whole. 

Because, I promise you, cynic of all cynics, it really doesn’t. Yesterday knows exactly how charming it is and goddamnit is it fun. It secured a killer leading pair in Patel and Lily James, who have actual chemistry, which is a bit hard to find this side of A Star Is Born while romcoms are still generally on the outs. Patel is perfect in the role. An outstanding vocalist and overflowing with movie-carrying energy, he also has the exact right face for the amount of times he needs to read “earnest but befuddled.” We’re also blessed to get Kate McKinnon as not-quite-villain in excellently tailored clothing. Her particular brand of weird is an amazing foil to Patel’s befuddled face. Yesterday toes the line of being too much so deftly it’s basically dancing on it: a lively if not mildly stiff Ed Sheeran plays himself and uses his own song as his ringtone. (As though people have ringtones anymore? The joke still lands.) Best of all, it’s not at all corny. 

Still. It’s clear that English romcom screenwriter emeritus Richard Curtis didn’t want to stray far from his comfort zone. Yesterday’s love story becomes its main narrative. But buried under its romcomness there’s a version of Yesterday that would resemble something closer to an art movie than what we got. Think of a peppier Inside Llewyn Davis that replaces some of the ennui with philosophy. There are more than a handful of occasions when the movie asks us to consider the following, though without a lick of follow-through: What are the implications of losing an immense cultural touchstone like the Beatles? What does it say about Rock and Roll’s history of cultural appropriation that Jack, a person of color, has trouble getting these incredible songs off the ground? What do these songs mean outside of their cultural context? What does music mean to people? 

It’s hard to tell if Yesterday’s hypothetical came before the decision to use the Beatles as the vanished band. The Beatles are the band, after all. It’s impossible to argue with their ubiquity, so we’ll never not buy the idea that the world would lose their collective shit over these songs. (And if you – yeah, you – don’t like the Beatles, you’re a contrarian and you know it. Grow up.) The hypothetical created a very lovely film, but it’s still hard to avoid the desire to see more of what this cinematic universe could provide.   

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