On July 6, 1957, John Lennon and his skiffle band, the Quarrymen, performed at the Crowning of the Rose Queen parade at Woolton Parish Church in Liverpool. Paul McCartney met Lennon backstage between sets and played a few songs, including a medley of Little Richard songs, on his own guitar. Two weeks later John invited Paul to join his band, and in 1960 they changed their name to the Beatles. Ten years after that the band dissolved. It had been the most prolific and profound decade of music writing, producing over 200 original songs on 13 albums and covering nearly 100 songs written by other artists.
I bring this up because today, as I write, is July 6, the anniversary of Paul’s meeting John, and today I happened to see Yesterday, a whimsical film based on their music.
What if Paul hadn’t attended that Rose Queen parade? What if John had become an artist instead of a musician? What if the Beatles had never existed as a musical group? Would the music still exist somehow? Was it their music, or does it belong to the universe?
Ten years after that the band dissolved. It had been the most prolific and profound decade of music writing.
That’s the theme of Yesterday, Danny Boyle’s delightful story of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) a mediocre singer-songwriter who wakes up one day after an unexplained global power outage to discover that no one has heard of the Beatles, and none of their songs exist — except in his own memory. A Google search of Beatles produces nothing but a big black stinkbug. A search for John, Paul, George, and Ringo brings up a wiki article on Pope John Paul. Coca-Cola doesn’t exist either, along with several other modern products we take for granted. Jack’s reactions to the loss of these products, and his friends’ reactions to his requests for them, lead to several delightful moments in the movie.
So what would you do if you discovered you were the only repository of some of the greatest music of the 20th century? Jack is like Guy Montag and the educated tramps at the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 — he becomes a living songbook, trying to remember and recreate every song in the Beatles lexicon.
Well, OK — he also performs the songs and accepts the accolades for having written them. He isn’t completely motivated by altruism. Or even a little bit. It’s somewhat galling to hear that these new songs are the best he’s ever written, but he gets over it easily enough. Soon he abandons his lifelong manager and almost girlfriend Ellie (Lily James) for a high-powered LA agent played by a deliciously wicked Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live’s Hillary Clinton), who openly admits to Jack that he will do all the work while she takes all the money — a clear but subtle reference to “Taxman.”
A Google search for John, Paul, George, and Ringo brings up a wiki article on Pope John Paul.
As familiar as he is with the music, Jack struggles to remember the lyrics. “Yesterday” is easy enough. But what about more complex works, such as “Eleanor Rigby” or “Back in the USSR”? We struggle along with him, wryly learning that we can sing along, but we can’t really sing alone. “When does she do that knitting?” he murmurs to himself as he works on recreating “Eleanor Rigby.” “And where does the rice come in?”
Eventually he pulls it together. (Father McKenzie, not Eleanor, does the darning, not knitting. And it’s “a” wedding, not “her” wedding — a significant difference for a song about loneliness. Such is the weakness of memory.)
So while Jack doesn’t actually write the songs he claims as his own, he does exert tremendous effort and labor to recreate the songs. And even then, he doesn’t quite get it right. As he accompanies himself on guitar or keyboard, some of the melodies and harmonies are a little off — intentionally so, I’m sure, to remind us how memory works — or doesn’t. Jack performs the songs as a solo act, and while I liked some of his modernized arrangements, especially his passionate version of “Help,” I missed the harmonies. All of this emphasizes how complex the Beatles’ recordings were, how deceptively simple their harmonies seemed, and how tight they really were, often trading off the melody as they sang.
It’s somewhat galling to hear that these new songs are the best he’s ever written, but he gets over it easily enough.
Boyle’s admiration for the music is apparent in subtle ways — a familiar flute riff in the background in one scene, a whimsical tuba in another, the tornadic crescendo rising to a climax from A Day in the Life as Jack flies into the air during an accident that occurs when the lights go out. Jack is “the lucky man who made the grade” — the chosen one who will “fill the holes” in the music.
So here are the questions I came away with after watching this well-written and solidly acted film:
- Were the Beatles great because of their music, or was their music great because of the Beatles?
- Would the Beatles have been so profoundly influential if their later, more experimental works had come first, the way Jack presents them, before their bouncy love songs had cemented their popularity?
- In short, was the phenomenon of the Beatles as important to their lasting influence as the music itself, or does the music stand on its own?
Another question is whether the Beatles would have been as successful today. The music industry is profoundly different today from what it was 50 years ago. Music is sold (or stolen) piecemeal on iTunes or YouTube and other sites. Musicians make their money on concert tickets and merchandise sales, not music royalties.
Could the Beatles have written more than 200 songs and produced 13 albums if they had been on the road month in and month out? How would the piecemeal nature of today’s music sales have affected their creativity?
The ’60s were a magical time for music, and Boyle suggests through this film that there was something mystical about it as well.
There really wasn’t a “B side” to a Beatles record; nearly all their songs were hits. Their albums were carefully curated so that each track complemented the others. Rubber Soul has a personality distinct from Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s was organized and performed as though it were an actual concert. Fans waited months for the next album to emerge and bought all of them eagerly, listening to each track in the order that was intended. By contrast, Jack feeds his audience all the songs at once, as he remembers them, almost the way we binge on Netflix series, glutting ourselves greedily and then looking around for more, sad that we didn’t savor what we had. As a viewer I couldn’t help but wonder what was going to happen when Jack ran out of songs. By contrast, the ’60s were a magical time for music, and Boyle suggests through this film that there was something mystical about it as well.
Yesterday asks us to consider these questions, but only in passing. The story stands on its own, with a delightful cast of main and supporting characters (Jack’s parents are a hoot!), a sweet love story, and a nostalgic soundtrack. Skip Spider-man’s Homecoming this week and enjoy a little homecoming of your own, reminiscing with the music of Yesterday.