Yesterday: Does it Actually Reflect On History?


One reason why Danny Boyle fascinates me, is because his films usually touch upon a refreshing idea in unique ways. A biopic about Steve Jobs is mostly resorted to focusing on the hours leading up to the launches of specific Apple products. An adaptation about sufferers or substance abuse finds more worth in the moral conflicts between these members. The true story of an explorer being trapped underneath a boulder becomes a decade defining self reflection. The criminally underrated Slumdog Millionaire (yeah, I said it) is an endurance test between serendipitous fate and projected realities. 

Then we have Yesterday: a film about a world where the music of the iconic pop group The Beatles simply vanishes. Only one sole person is aware that these iconic songs exist. So, he reintroduces them into the world and becomes a sensation. This is a great idea. The Beatles -- whether you like them or not -- are pop innovators. They started out as your common boy group at the time. They sang songs written for them (or they covered popular tracks). They all matched. They wrote the occasional song, but their writing wasn't the focal point of their jams. They even had feature films based on them (A Hard Day’s Night being one of the best there ever was; a game changer for music videos and documentation in their own rights). 

The group began to take ownership of their identity. The Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo became a phenomenon. No one from Tin Pan Alley was there to give them blueprints. They forged their own path. Eventually, this turned into an obsession with crafting music. Live shows became a contest between who could be louder (the fans or the band). They decided to become a studio-only band. It allowed them to find tune their creations, and not have to deal with the daily stress of touring. The majority of their best work came from the worlds created in these songs. They broke up short after, and became a perfect legacy band: genre changers, music standard inventors, and the manufactured boy band that turned into self fulfilling artists.

A scene from the Yesterday trailer.

A scene from the Yesterday trailer.

This is why Yesterday worries me. This problem dawned on me before I heard anyone else raise the concern. Then, Anthony Fantano (of The Needle Drop fame) echoed my sentiments. The trailer mentions Coldplay and features Ed Sheeran, amongst other acts. In a world where The Beatles never existed, these acts would, too, never exist. This is kind of the same problem that arises in many time travel films: cause and effect are often forgotten. Say we are watching a soccer game. A game tying penalty kick is missed halfway through the game. A game tying goal happens towards the end and forces the game into overtime. If someone said "we could have won had that one shot went in", I would have to disagree. Every player would have played a different match from there on. That opportunity to even get the same shot at the end of the game may have never even happened. Maybe five could have happened. Simply changing one factor would change every subsequent factor, because of all of the affected properties. The audience momentum would have changed. Coaches would have devised different strategies. It just would have not been the same game.

Apply this to Yesterday. You cannot just pull a band out of existence and not have the entire spectrum remain unaffected. I would argue that even smaller bands would leave a mark. Suppose The Tammys were removed from existence. That spot on any chart where Egyptian Shumba sat on would have been replaced by someone else. The open spot at the end of the chart could have dictated a new future for another artist that just missed the cut in reality. Thankfully, Egyptian Shumba very much exists. Do you see my point, though? That's the shift from a small change. Imagine arguably the biggest band in contemporary music vanishing. That Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode where Homer keeps affecting his reality by swatting mosquitos (and other trivial acts) may be an exaggeration, but I honestly agree with the extent of the courses of action. 

Ed Sheeran as himself in Yesterday.

Ed Sheeran as himself in Yesterday.

So, let's insist that this is a film not where The Beatles never existed, but they did and their music was just removed and no one (but one man) noticed. That is possibly what Yesterday is doing. Wouldn't it make more sense to hypothesize what a world without innovators would truly be like? If the lightbulb wasn't invented? Hell, if electricity wasn't discovered? What would we be using as a natural resource right now instead? It's the same idea when it comes to art. Wondering how different cultural shifts, business protocols, and dreaming artists would be is such a fascinating topic. Just having a lone wolf bring back music that just makes sense to a world that forgot it had it? That feels a little cautious.

Nonetheless, Boyle rarely disappoints. Maybe his angle on this story will fascinate me in a way I didn't imagine. Still, it's going to go a different route, when Boyle's films are usually even more refreshing than this above-normal idea. It may be silly to look so far ahead before even seeing the film, so I still believe in Yesterday.

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Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.