The film 'Yesterday' is bullshit
In an unhinged guest post, writer/comedian Dallas McLaughlin takes a deep (DEEP) dive into the logistics of filmmaker Danny Boyle's theoretical Beatles scenario
We’re living in unprecedented times. We’re stuck at home. We’re going crazy. I, for example, ordered a basketball online. Do I like basketball? Who knows? I spoke to my mom the other night, and she said she’s been playing a didjeridoo—and that was only day three of the quarantine. We’re all dealing with forced isolation in our own ways.
This can only explain why Dallas McLaughlin (comedian, writer, co-host of Voice of San Diego’s The Kept Faith Podcast) asked if he could send me a review of the film Yesterday to run on AWKSD. I said sure I’d take a look at it. Dear Readers, I was not prepared.
Let this be a lesson. A cautionary tale about the effects of isolation, if you will. Read and take note. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
Last night I watched the 2019 movie Yesterday. It was directed by Danny Boyle and released to very little fanfare and received almost no attention post-release. In fact, last night when picking a movie to watch as we prepared for the Apocalypse, I asked my wife if she wanted to watch Yesterday and she replied with, “Did we hear anyone say anything about it?”
The answer was, “No.”
We hadn’t. Which, is weird. Especially given how many musicians and songwriters exist in our world. Did they not see it? Did they not care about it? Was it bad, but not bad enough to tell someone how bad it was? Or maybe is just fine like a Subaru Outback?
Regardless, Danny Boyle who directed Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours and who happens to be one of all-time favorite filmmakers, was the deciding factor and we settled in for a trip down Penny Lane.
If you don’t know what Yesterday is—and I’m willing to bet you don’t—it’s a movie about a singer/songwriter in England who isn’t very good and the night he decides to quit music forever there is a massive blackout across the entire world which during he gets hit by a bus and wakes up to find that many things that used to exist don’t anymore—including The Beatles. Like, they never existed. No one has ever heard of them because they never became a band, and John Paul Ringo George never wrote music. Basically Mick Jagger’s wet dream, and perhaps the only thing that could’ve saved Brian Wilson from madness.
Anyway, the singer/songwriter—we’ll call him “Jack,” because that’s his name in the movie—decides he will record all The Beatles songs he can remember as his own. What could wrong? Honestly, not much, which isn’t too say that’s a problem with the movie. It’s kind of lovely. The songs are immediately heralded as the greatest songs anyone has ever heard, Jack is the greatest songwriter, and he is on the verge of superstardom. The movie wasn’t great, it wasn’t bad. I didn’t have a problem with the movie, and it did turn out to be like a Subaru Outback—just fine enough and sexually ambiguous.
So, why am I writing about it? Why did it keep me up last night, and why did it make me listen to The Beatles all day today?
Because, I don’t buy it.
Suspending complete disbelief I can go along on the global blackout idea and the idea that as a result certain things (other things don’t exist, but I won’t spoil them) have never existed. I can get behind that and buy into THAT.
What I don’t buy into is that The Beatles music would be immediately recognized as the greatest songs anyone’s ever heard. In this musical climate? In this musical landscape? By this generation of music fans? I don’t fucking think so. That’s not to say that I think young music fans are stupid. Not at all. Every generation of teens and tweens and twenty-something’s has stupid music fans. I mean, shit, “That’s What Friends Are For” was a number one hit for like 18 weeks!
It’s a question that is actually beyond the disbelief you have to suspend over a global event that completely wiped out certain things from history: If The Beatles, or even The Beatles music, or even ONE Beatles song came out today would it be considered not only a hit, but one of the greatest pieces of song writing ever?
Your immediate answer would more than likely be “Yes”.
And, that’s not a bad position to take! It’s certainly the one the movie takes, and certainly what it assumes you’ll believe because WHY WOULDN’T YOU IT’S THE FUCKING BEATLES!
I’m also betting the movie purposefully made itself a tad forgettable (Subaru Outback) so that you wouldn’t think about it that hard, and I’m betting it was hoping to never attract a viewer like me who would not stop thinking about this for days!
It’s such an unbelievable question to answer because the first thing you have to do is completely disassociate yourself from The Beatles. Completely.
You have to forget everything you’ve ever loved about John or Paul or George. Notice I don’t mention Ringo, because you’ve already forgotten about him. It wasn’t hard. But, you have to lose all association with those four people—four of the most FAMOUS CULTURAL ICONS WHO EVER EXISTED. You can’t think about them in the context of this question because they’re gone. Poof.
Did you forget about them? Were you able to do it? NO?! Okay, but, try again. Now, go put on a Beatles song—or better yet a Beatles cover. Don’t listen to a Beatles song by The Beatles. That would be too difficult.
Did ya find one? Good. Now listen to it. I’ll wait.
WHAT’S THE FIRST FUCKING THING YOU THOUGHT OF WHEN YOU HEARD IT?!
I’m betting it was either:
1: This isn’t as good as The Beatles version, or
2: Man, I should go listen to The Beatles again.
There is no way you just heard that song and didn’t think of at least something to do with The Beatles! Unless that song was “The Long and Winding Road,” and for a second you thought maybe it was a Wings song, but in this scenario it wouldn’t have been that either because WINGS ALSO NEVER EXISTED (To make matters a little more complicated, Himesh Patel who plays Jack, actually does a great cover of the song in the movie, and in my mind might be better than the original)!
So, let’s just say for the sake of the experiment that you were somehow able to hear a Beatles song and be completely free of any context therein. It is fresh to you. Completely fresh. And, I’m betting there is a large part of our population that this becoming increasingly true for, and that helps this experiment.
Okay, so no more Beatles. Now, we have to think of all their songs and try to pick out one of them that could possibly be a hit today. For the sake of brevity and logic let’s use their actual certified number one hits:. There’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, “Hey Jude”, “I Feel Fine”, “The Long and Winding Road”, “Penny Lane”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “Paperback Writer”, “Eight Days A Week”, “We Can Work It Out”, “Get Back”, “All You Need Is Love”, “Yesterday, “Ticket to Ride” (really?), and “Hello Goodbye”. You probably have some kind of gripe here, but oh well, get over it, the Beatles don’t even exist right now.
Would ANY of those songs have a chance to chart in today’s musical climate? Seriously think about it. For it chart I can only imagine one of two things would have to happen:
1: A famous musician/singer would have to release one of the songs. Meaning, it would have to be someone like Beyonce, Lizzo, Ed Sheeran, Beck, 21 Pilots, Bieber, Post Malone, Maroon 5, Josh Groban, Taylor Swift, someone who already sells a shit ton of records would have to release it so it would even have a chance.
2: Someone emerges on to the scene with one of those songs, and let’s even assume it’s presented in the genre you’re familiar with that song being presented in, and everyone loves it and flies up to number one. Not unheard of. Not at all. Unlikely? You bet.
Let’s start with scenario one: Maroon 5 releases “We Can Work It Out” and it’s a smash. Hard to believe isn’t it? Probably cuz you hate Maroon 5, but even if it was a hit I would be hard pressed to believe that anyone thought it was a great song and that’s why it was a hit. And, not a great song in the sense that you’re rollerskating on the beach and it comes on and you’re like, “Oh, great song!” I mean to be on par with what the movie is insinuating it would have to be considered a GREAT song. You’d believe Maroon 5 were some of the greatest songwriters ever. Let’s move away from Maroon 5 and think about Lizzo releasing “Eight Days a Week”. I bet it’s a fucking banger, but GREAT song? Maybe? You definitely wouldn’t remember for all times as one of the GREATEST songs.
The closest you could get to fitting the mold would to have someone like Beck or Ed Sheeran (who actually plays a pivotal and terribly acted role as himself in Yesterday) release “Hey Jude” or “Get Back” or something. Two musicians who are known for songwriting, and you wouldn’t be surprised to release something with significant lyrical content that could also have ‘staying power’. Still, you’d then have to hear those releases and IMMEDIATELY think these might be the greatest songs ever written.
All of that seems very unlikely as what’s the last great pop song that lasted longer than a year AND was considered one of the greatest songs ever written or at the very least written by one of the greatest songwriters of all time?
Now, on to scenario two: We have to imagine hearing “Penny Lane” for the first time, right now, from some artist you’ve never heard of and think “That’s a hit!” You almost certainly wouldn’t think that. It’s hard for you be honest here. I know. This is my struggle. But, you wouldn’t think it was a hit, in fact you’d probably hate it. You’d think it was hokey, maybe even dumb. You’d also wonder who the artist was. It’d be like when Daniel Powter had a number one hit with “Bad Day.” You’d be like who is this guy? I kind of hate this song, but I also kind of love it. And, honestly “Bad Day” is a really good song. It is. Fuck you. But, you’d never think to yourself: Can’t wait to hear his next single. I’m sure a few people would, and that’s where this is ultimately going.
Popular music culture today doesn’t celebrate good song writing. They celebrate the hit. They team five different people together to work on one song (usually the artist isn’t even there) with the hope of it being a hit song, and for the most part pop music in it’s current format is devoid of substance, but full of hooks.
The one place that does celebrate great songwriting is Indie music, and occasionally that Indie music does break through to the mainstream. Occasionally. And, even then the music is either looked down upon by contemporaries or the artist themselves lack the star power or songwriting bandwidth to sustain that success.
This would mean it would be nearly impossible for The Beatles to arrive on the Indie music scene right now and immediately have an impact. They could slowly catch fire, churn out album after album with one or two GREAT songs, and eventually they could possibly, maybe, if everything broke right be classified as GREAT songwriters.
Perfect examples of this are the pop/rock artists (because don’t forget The Beatles would also be classified differently today) who most songwriters agree are the best alive today: Jeff Tweedy, Sam Beam, the guy from Dawes, etc. There is a chance you know who I’m talking about, but there is a bigger chance you don’t. In fact in the movie there’s a pretty solid joke about how songwriters always like to show off and say that something like Neutral Milk Hotel is the best band of all time.
This is true. For the past thirty years believing you know what's better than what other people are listening to is as essential to being a music fan and as is listening to music.
My wife pointed out that the big thing the movie had going for it is that Jack knew all their songs, could pick out the very best Beatles songs and put them on one record. That is a huge leg up. However, I still have a hard time believing your average music buyer is gonna give a shit about “Help.”
You give a shit, but if you’ve read this far I hate to break it to you—you are not your average music buyer.
If one musician/singer could release all the best Beatles songs on one record would that record be a hit? Would every song be considered genius? After thinking about this for thirty seconds the answer would be ‘no’. Again, in today’s culture records aren’t supported that way. Not even in the Indie world. We basically live on a track by track basis—thanks OBAMA! The majority of fans and even diehard fans would not ingest an entire album as intended. And, even the highest-powered record label in the world would more than likely refuse to promote it as an “album experience”.
The movie tries to remedy this by convincing the viewer that the label would be promoting it as an entire album experience, but also seemed to not buy into it’s own premise too much and kind of abandoned that plot line as the film went on.
The other thing we have to remember is that The Beatles themselves rode on the backs of another genre (Chuck Berry, Motown, etc) to gain popularity. This isn’t to say the songs they wrote back then were bad, but they didn’t really expand into music they wanted to create till after they were already uber-famous.
Would listening to an album that had “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “Happiness is Warm Gun” back to back make any logical sense to the musician, the label, the listener? Probably not. The genres would have to match up for the time the album came out. That means either “All You Need is Love” is getting some sitar or “Blackbird” is getting some hand claps.
After weighing everything I’ve exhaustively written so far, and really thinking about how it would all play out there is really no logical way that The Beatles could come out today and IMMEDIATELY be heralded as the greatest song writers alive. I also maintain only a handful of their songs would even be appreciated today by more than a few thousand people.
The real kicker here is that this determination is based less on a theory that the music industry has really fucked up how people are able to access music—and more on the theory that this musical culture we live in today was built and cultivated by the massive success and lasting impact that was The Beatles.
In a way, every pop/rock song that’s been successful since The Beatles has more or less been influenced by The Beatles. They are responsible for their own canonical creative demise.
The Beatles will more than likely never not be famous. I can’t imagine living in a world where they aren’t at the very least celebrated within the musical landscape. And, that is the point of the movie. How can we live in a world where they wouldn’t exist? They have to. Nature finds a way so-to-speak. The only issue is the movie takes so many liberties with how the entire world feels about The Beatles that the very basis for the plot is too large to work.
It is impossible for you to not hear a Beatles song and not think about The Beatles. The film would have been better served if he’d woken up and there was never a Coldplay or Billy Joel or even Oasis and Jack wrote “Wonderwall” and had one big hit. I mean, it worked for Oasis.