Build A Better Yesterday

How could the film Yesterday have been improved? Over the fold, ten and a half possible improvements.

The first is not my own:

1.

Kudos to that seventeen-year-old.

The second isn’t mine either, but came from the teenager I saw the film with. It’s slightly less radical in plot terms, but cinematically really neat.

2. Wembley; Jack admits he’s not the author of the songs and renounces all royalties. Then:

“Thankyou so much, Wembley, you’ve been amazing. I’m going to leave you with this song. It goes out to Ellie, and it’s called… Wonderwall.”

(And what’s that we see in Ellie’s eyes? Could it be a flicker of recognition?)

Alternatively…

3. Wembley; Jack admits, renounces, uploads all the songs, makes a run for it, etc, etc. However: in this world, (almost) nobody has ever heard of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. When Jack reels off their names, nobody knows what’s going on – is Jack saying he’s got a team of songwriters working for him? Or is this some weird rock-star nonsense, like Bowie saying he’d never tour again or Prince saying he wasn’t Prince any more? One possibility that nobody – well, very nearly nobody – will consider for a moment is that Reality Itself has changed – that this is some kind of “Mandela Effect” thing, only real and on a huge, huge scale. Meanwhile, given that Jack is working for a huge entertainment conglomerate, those songs that have been uploaded are going to be taken down – maybe immediately, maybe it’ll take as long as a day, but they are coming down.

In short, Jack could do everything he does in that scene, and nothing would change. Which would be a lot more interesting.

Alternatively…

4. …let’s get back to Wonderwall. Maybe Jack tries to rebel, maybe he doesn’t, but either way he ends up going ahead and releasing his album. (Am I right to think they called it a ‘double album’, by the way? Curtis is showing his age if so. Neil Hannon had some fun with this very point recently – “I don’t think a double download is even a thing”.) He tours, he makes appearances, it sells millions. What now? What’s he got planned for the follow-up? Eventually – maybe not until the third album or even the fourth, but sooner or later – he is going to run out of Beatles songs; the good ones, anyway. The obvious solution will be to dig into what he can remember of the Oasis repertoire: Live Forever, Rock and Roll Star, there are some belters there. (“Cigarettes and Alcohol” might need a bit of a rewrite, though.) This, though, only postpones the inevitable. Jack Malik’s career enters a long, slow decline, both commercial and artistic, culminating when he plays his A&R people the candidates for lead track on his new album – “Octopus’s Garden” and “Go Let It Out”. (Well, it was that or make a concept album about a young wizard called Harry Potter.) It’s tough at the top.

5. is like 4., except for a scene on the British leg of Jack’s world tour, when he’s waylaid by an irate and penniless Noel Gallagher – Eh, how come you’re singing my songs? They’re different, all right, they sound really good the way you do them, but they’re my bloody songs. And I never even recorded them! How did you get hold of them? I hope your record company can afford a good lawyer, pal…

6. is the “Scrambled Eggs” scenario. Possibly as a consequence of drug consumption, Jack forgets – or half-forgets – how he knows the songs, and comes to believe – or almost-believe – that they just came to him, you know? Just… inspiration… Yes, you could call it divine inspiration, I’m not sure I’d go quite that far… The Beatles’ origin stories and the ones he’s made up get mixed up in Jack’s mind, and after a while the same happens to the songs; in this scenario it’s not just Ed Sheeran who’s messing with the material. (“Summer Song” has its devotees, but “Summer Song #9” is a bit of a tough listen.) Then, one day, two fans turn up at a press conference brandishing a yellow plastic submarine. They’re not happy…

(Seriously, how much better would it have been if they weren’t happy? That scene went for nothing, or less than nothing; they were the least threatening stalkers ever.)

7. is a bit more of a departure; in this scenario the songs really do “just come to” Jack, one at a time and not always when he expects them. The underlying logic – somewhere between Terry Pratchett, Philip K. Dick and Donnie Darko – is that the songs of The Beatles should exist; in fact The Beatles, and their entire career, should exist, and Jack is just the human wedge being driven into this slightly misshapen version of reality so as to let them back in. This version of the story would have a fair bit of comedy potential – we see Jack sitting at the feet of an Indian sage, then hitching up with an avant-garde artist and campaigning for peace, then getting an overpowering urge to record the voices for Thomas the Tank Engine – but the story would get more serious as The Beatles’ reality came closer and closer to Jack’s. The payoff would come in That Scene, although in this version the mystery man is curiously unsurprised to find Jack on his doorstep:

Ah, you made it. We were wondering when you’d turn up.
– Sorry?
Never mind. You’d better come in.
– Er… Do you know who I am?
Oh yes. The thing is, son, you’ve had a good run and everything, but we’d really like them back now.
– You’d like me to…?
The songs. We’d like them back.
– Sorry, we?
Oh, would you like me to introduce you? It can be arranged.

See? Much better.

8. is less radical; in fact, in this version the entire film plays out as it does now, until the epilogue. At this point reality kicks in. Jack Malik, global mega-star, composer (apparently) of some of the greatest pop songs in history, goes quietly back to teaching and Suffolk – and nobody minds? Not only that, Jack Malik – formerly a global mega-star, now a schoolteacher living in obscurity and Suffolk – is still coming out with the incredibly catchy songs that made him a mega-star in the first place, and nobody notices? (Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da was a big hit, remember, albeit not for The Beatles.) No, at the end of the film Jack is still exactly what he was when he came round from the crash – the only musician in the world who remembers The Beatles – and that is a weird and difficult, if privileged, situation to be in. We really should have seen how (if) he coped with that.

9. The avenue that the film really should have gone down is one that it did in fact go down, but only for about five minutes; after that the film forgot it as if it had never existed (appropriately enough). What if nobody in the world had ever heard She Loves You – but nobody in the world particularly wanted to hear She Loves You? What if Jack scored a hit with Yesterday, say – some of the songs really are fireproof – but couldn’t repeat it; instead of being the new, well, Ed Sheeran, he’d be the new White Town or Nizlopi. It would only need his next release to be dismissed as childishly simple (All My Loving) or cloyingly sentimental (Here, There and Everywhere), as a badly-aimed novelty (Drive My Car) or just as a bit weird (any number of tracks from 1966 on), and that would be it; and it would be as if The Beatles had never been. But then, one thing the film never really shows us, ironically, is just that – what it would be like if The Beatles had never been. We’re in a world where The Beatles’ music – all of it – is so uniquely brilliant that the world can’t help going crazy for it, but also where the absence of The Beatles has had no effect at all on the rest of popular music and culture (with the exception of Beatles tribute acts and, of course, Oasis). OK, it would have been a lot of work to trace all the implications of removing so central a pillar to British pop music – but then, the film works on the basis that The Beatles were that central pillar, so for the narrative to treat them as dispensable isn’t even consistent. Sloppy, Curtis, sloppy.

9 and a half. I’m not, I confess, a Richard Curtis fan, and I came out of the cinema with any number of minor irritations. It would have been nice if Jack didn’t have a big group of friends that looked like the big group of friends in every other Richard Curtis film; or if Ellie had acted and sounded a bit more like an actual woman; or if the main villain had acted and sounded a bit less like Lex Luthor. Jack’s own character, come to that, is an odd and rather under-written combination of shlub and hero; we’re made to feel that the success (in all senses) that he achieves is nothing more than what he deserves, but without him ever actually demonstrating any of the good qualities that would make him deserve it. Not, at least, until the emotional double whammy of That Scene and the big moment at Wembley. But That Scene has no connection to the rest of the film at all – Jack never even mentions music, let alone explains why he’s there; it could easily have been left out, and (as Mark Kermode has commented) probably should have been. (And if it absolutely had to stay in, the other character in it should have been drastically rewritten; the character we saw – a vague old geezer with an avuncular interest in young people’s love lives – was neither believable in itself nor remotely true to its model. There’s a short story called “Snodgrass” by Ian MacLeod; I recommend seeking it out.)

As for the climactic Wembley scene, let’s face it, we’re in a Richard Curtis film; there was always going to be a Big Moment when the spudboy main character Says how he Truly Feels – and pays his stunningly attractive female friend the rare and precious compliment that she’s been waiting for, of saying he’s romantically interested in her. (Don’t get me started on the sexual politics of Richard Curtis films.)

But these are all minor grumbles. Here’s the big issue with the film, and the final – and perhaps the least radical – possible improvement.

10. Imagine that the film wasn’t about The Beatles at all. Jack Malik is a struggling semi-professional musician; one day he picks up a flyer in the street (possibly at a crossroads) advertising an open audition for a mystery show. He goes along and is offered an extraordinary deal: he’ll play the biggest venues in the world, work with the biggest stars in the world and be acclaimed as the greatest recording artist in the world, without having to learn a single new song. All he needs to do is commit heart and soul to the process; all he needs to do is to break all his ties to everything that could hold him back, even including those things – and people – he values the most. What will he do?

Now: have I just described a completely different film from Yesterday… or not?

That’s the big problem – and the reason why it’s so easy to come up with much better alternative plot lines. The trouble with Yesterday is that it’s not about The Beatles. As such, it’s a real misfire. The set-up promised so much; specifically, it promised to ask the question, What would it be like to be the only person in the world to know the music of The Beatles? What would it actually be like? But the only answer we get is: Dude, you’d be a huge star!

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4 Comments

  1. metatone
    Posted 15 July 2019 at 21:24 | Permalink | Reply

    I’d throw in the extra irritation (pointed out by my friend) that much of the film is organised around keeping the “continuous seconds of song played” to a minimum, presumably on royalties grounds… which actually means you spend a lot of time finishing off songs in your head, while the film moves on… but also, really, means you don’t actually get much of a sense of the power of the Beatles music (if you’re not already a fan, and many younger people only have a passing familiarity) until near (or indeed, right at) the end. And this I think connects to the failure to say “what would it be like to be the only person to know the songs of the Beatles.” Of course, ironically, we see in the recording studio by the train tracks that what makes the Beatles the Beatles was also very much not something easily contained in one person (and not even in 4 musician-songwriters). What makes Strawberry Fields or I Am The Walrus (and a number of others) is in part the production.

    Interesting to me is that a lot of people (and I’d humbly suggest, you yourself) are too ill-disposed even to what Curtis aspires to be – and it shows in the critiques. I think Curtis has a lot of problems (e.g. bad sexual politics, cardboard & sterotype characters, cliched family/social groupings, etc.) but I’m sympathetic to his goal which is not to produce a work of dystopian alternative-timeline fiction, but to produce something fantastical, daydreamlike, amusing and yes, happy ending bound. (One of the flaws of Western film watchers is they are utterly bound into tragedy as the only thing. I dream of a future where all you aesthetes are forced to watch enough Indian cinema to develop a better sense of the balance between tragedy and fantasy.)

    Note: this isn’t to say that nothing should go wrong, part of Curtis’ problem is that he’s really bad at integrating the downsides of even a happy human life. Yet, it is to say, maybe there’s a challenge here to write a good film with a happy ending from this premise, rather than retread all the old cliches of a man out of time in an alternate universe from classic sci-fi.

    One of the problems with 10, incidentally is it strips out a lot of the comedy. Now Curtis is so clumsy that the comedy (which should have been great) is so-so, but it is part of what the movie should have been. 7 of course brings out more comedy potential and indeed could be something, but of course you one has to step away from the “chickens come home to roost” ending.

    And indeed, I’ll note, the problem with the stalkers isn’t primarily their lack of anger (except for you chickens come home to roost types) it is that we miss out on the chance to go exploring “what is it like to remember something incredibly positive that no-one else does” – the inverse of the great novels that came out of totalitarian experience (which talk about the erasures, but erasures of injustices etc.) Of course, the lack of jealousy is a bit too starkly Curtis even for me, but that’s a different thing from what you’re all just crying out for from the stalkers… (see 1…)

    • Phil
      Posted 16 July 2019 at 10:33 | Permalink | Reply

      I like a happy ending if it works; I think a comedy, in the old pastoral everyone-gets-married-at-the-end sense, is a thoroughly good thing, and I agree that you don’t see many of them out of Hollywood these days (I guess musicals are filling that niche to some extent). And I love Four Weddings, even since realising that the Andie MacDowell character is a psychopath. (Admittedly, I disliked Notting Hill and hated Love Actually.) I just don’t know how you’d get a happy ending out of this premise – although, as you say, that thrown-away scene with the ‘stalkers’ is a start that could have been built on.

      I totally agree about the studio element. Mark Kermode (who liked the film) stuck to the line that The Songs are great, The Songs are indestructible, etc, but: which part of ‘The Song’ is George Martin varispeeding one arrangement of Strawberry Fields Forever so as to stitch it together with a completely different arrangement in a different key, or Paul McCartney telling the session trumpeter to play a flourish ending on a note higher than the trumpet’s range (but which he knew the trumpeter could get), or Martin (again) getting up early one morning to play a quick baroque piano solo so that John Lennon wouldn’t have to write a middle-eight for In My Life? How much more studio-bound could The Beatles’ post-1965 music get? None – none more studio-bound. (Also, *which* Songs? The Beatles could release an album including (in no particular order) Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, I Want You/She’s So Heavy, Mean Mr Mustard and Her Majesty, but that was because they were The Beatles and everyone was on tenterhooks to see what they’d do next. An awful lot of the later songs are throwaway novelties, rudimentary jams or just a bit weird – or, in a few cases, weird rudimentary novelties.)

      That’s an interesting point about scenario 10 stripping out the comedy, as my argument is that scenario 10 fundamentally *is* the film. Is that all The Beatles added to the film – comic relief?

      • Phil
        Posted 16 July 2019 at 10:37 | Permalink

        (McCartney story relates to Penny Lane. “Da-da-DA-da-da… da-da-da-da-daa, ba-da-da, da-da-da, oh you’re joking…”)

  2. Posted 29 July 2019 at 18:08 | Permalink | Reply

    “We’re in a world where The Beatles’ music – all of it – is so uniquely brilliant that the world can’t help going crazy for it, but also where the absence of The Beatles has had no effect at all on the rest of popular music and culture (with the exception of Beatles tribute acts and, of course, Oasis). OK, it would have been a lot of work to trace all the implications of removing so central a pillar to British pop music – but then, the film works on the basis that The Beatles were that central pillar, so for the narrative to treat them as dispensable isn’t even consistent. Sloppy, Curtis, sloppy.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

    Was away and saw it in a cinema on the continent where there were three other people there, a women in her 60s and two kids in their teens. All stayed until the end. All laughed, despite it being the original version with Spanish subtitles. But I wondered what it meant to them.

    It frustrated me a fair old bit because it’s such a great concept yet it is so under explored. What is a world without the Beatles like? What X factor, so to speak, did they bring to popular culture. I’m someone who came to genuinely regard them relatively late in the day, perhaps the last fifteen years or so, so say my late 30s, despite liking them in a vague way prior to that, and what always strikes me is how innovative they were. But absent them what would the shape of things be like? If it’s just absent Oasis that seems peculiarly limited (presumably ELO might ship some collateral damage as well).

    I’m not too fussed that the works were broader collaborations/accidents than is sometimes thought but as a fan of alternate history and science fiction as well as enjoying some of Boyle and Curtis’s work in the past this felt like a shallow take and was really only buoyed along by the charm of the central actors and the broader cast.

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