A lot more than nostalgia: 'Yesterday' revisits The Beatles

Yesterday
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Richard Curtis
Starring Himesh Patel & Lily James
In cinemas now

Yesterday, I saw Yesterday with Mum. It’s a high-concept film, which means the audience is invited to walk through one great impossibility in order to play around with a giant What If. In this case: what if you were the only person on earth who remembered the Beatles? What if every last trace of the band’s existence was wiped out in a 15-second cosmic glitch, leaving you, a struggling musician, with the memory of their entire back-catalogue? You could, perhaps, sing "Yesterday" and let everyone think you wrote it yourself.

Yesterday is a family-friendly rom-com that satisfyingly reaches a heart-warming and highly ethical conclusion. It is almost ridiculously wholesome.

Watching this film about 20-somethings communing with the pop music of their grandparents’ generation, it’s hard to believe that anything about the Beatles was once considered edgy. The playlist leans towards McCartney ("Yesterday", "Let it Be") over Lennon (there’s no "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" or "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"). 

While Yesterday is strictly feel good, it does push the envelope in its own way. Himesh Patel, a South Asian actor, is cast as the romantic lead, and this is presented as entirely unremarkable. There’s no explaining it, no tracing of origin or identity, no making anything of it at all.

Jack Malik (Patel’s character) is just one of a group of (all white) 20-something friends. While it’s no big deal in the movie, in the real world it is. The number of South Asian romantic leads in mainstream English movies might even be as low as one: Patel himself, in this one.

Patel’s presence – his unremarked but undeniable difference – gives the Beatles story a revivifying angle and some much-needed gravity. At the same time, Patel delivers an effortlessly believable, perfectly understated performance. A bit of a miracle happens: the over-familiar Beatles songs really do come back to life.

Just a word about The Girl. Jack’s love interest, Ellie (Lily James), never gets to be more than The Girl.

That said, I still found aspects of their relationship interesting. Let’s not forget that the Beatles once wrote a song called "Run for Your Life" with the disturbing lines: “I’d rather see you dead little girl/Than see you with another man little girl.”

While men and women have had valuable friendships since forever, it’s not something you see much in popular culture. But here, 50 years after "Run for Your Life", we see Jack and Ellie in a serious discussion prior to imminent sexual activity.

They’re talking about how they’re going to shake off that brother and sister feeling that results from having been friends for so long. We may have a pussy-grabbing leader of the free world, we may have a long way to go, but it’s also true that millions of young people really are working at treating each other respectfully.

But as this is a rom-com and as feminism has not quite played out in the way we might have anticipated back in the 80s, we must still return to a climax of wedded bliss, complete with a montage of adorable future children and dancing in the marketplace - Obla di, obla da.

So back to that What If.

What if the Beatles had never existed, and a young singer/songwriter – the sort who hones his craft in his bedroom replaying YouTube clips, not in bands in sweaty pubs – came along today who could write like Lennon and McCartney? There he’d be, uploading "Hey Jude" and "The Long and Winding Road" to Soundcloud and updating his insta.

Would anyone notice? How much do works of art rely on their context, and how much can they stand on their own two feet? Maybe the answer is right there in that contorted metaphor.

Maybe without a supporting context, a work of art can’t stand up at all.

The very existence of the Beatles themselves requires the confluence of countless facts and flukes: human evolution out of the primeval swamp, the history of Western Europe, industrialisation, the history of Liverpool, slavery, the invention of the radio, black music, Paul McCartney’s parents meeting each other and having children; Paul McCartney meeting with John Lennon at a fete in 1957, the particular skills of producer George Martin.

For instance, the 1966 song "Eleanor Rigby" was sent out into the world on the crest of the wave that was the Beatles, a wave that only took that particular shape because of the (fleeting) world that created it and held it. Yes, it’s brilliant. But so are, and were, other songs.

It was the character Eleanor Rigby that was able to reach out, lending her particular flavour to the idea of loneliness in our culture, because she had a spot on the crest of that particular, unrepeatable wave.

It makes me think of a discussion over dinner at the Varuna Writers Centre earlier this year. One of the poets told how someone had sent out a chapter of a Patrick White novel to a list of Australian publishers, without letting on the writer’s identity.

The work, surprise surprise, was universally rejected. How disappointing that our publishers can no longer recognise genius!

On the other hand, we also said, reading White today, knowing the context in which he wrote, would be very different to reading the same words if actually written today. If they were written today, you might think the work was strangely caught in the preoccupations of an earlier time, strangely unaware of its twenty first century audience.

You might recognise beautifully crafted sentences but finally put the work to one side, regretfully, thinking that perhaps the time for this sort of thing had passed.

Perhaps. And yet.

The artist is always striving for work that takes leave of the ground it grew in. Art that comes at you directly, in words or images or sounds or movements so powerful that they seem to defy the normal rules of time and space, so unexpected when they first arrive, so fitting when they do that their creation seems inevitable.

There is the hope that a work of art can be better than, separate to, the miserable artist. Alice belongs in a different dimension, somehow, to the possibly pedophilic Lewis Carrol. Young Elvis is a luminous idea that persists despite the corporeality of Fat Elvis bingeing on hamburgers.

It’s a trick, this separation, but it’s the artist’s only trick. Afterwards, the artist will put their name on the work, although this will never feel quite right, because they’ll suspect that they are only a conduit for bigger, longer-lasting, more important forces or perhaps they’re simply fashionable, or well connected.

In Yesterday, the combination of joy and misery at having tricked the world is written all over Jack Malik’s face.

Yesterday‘s thesis is that great art can and should take leave of the mere artist; can and should go out into the world across time and space. The songs of the Beatles are so good that they are guaranteed to move people 50 years later, at first hearing, without explanation or back story.

Brilliance will be seen, understood, duly rewarded, no matter what. In Yesterday, Jack Malik goes straight to the top. People are soon saying he’s the best songwriter in the whole world.

Interestingly, the original screenplay by Jack Barth starts with the same premise – the cosmic glitch that wipes out all memory of the Beatles – but reaches precisely the opposite conclusion: even the back catalogue of Beatles songs isn’t enough, by itself, to lift a struggling musician into fame and fortune.

He’s quoted in The Australian saying: “My view was, even if I woke up and I was the only person to know Star Wars or Harry Potter, I probably wouldn’t be very successful with it because that’s kind of the way things have gone for me.”

Once screenwriter Richard Curtis, king of the feel good and rom-com (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary) got on board, he reversed Barth’s premise, plumping for what he called “optimism”.

[Reprinted from The squawkin' galah]

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