A Few Reasons Why “Yesterday” Can Go Fuck Itself.
There are a few writers out there who can pen a line so brilliant that it bypasses whatever its emotional intent was.
Some jokes are so great, for example, that they go right out the other side of “funny” and end up mildly depressing because you know you will never be that good. Some people can write a line so great that it stops you in your tracks and makes you wonder why anyone else bothers trying to create anything at all when the standard can be so high. Why doesn’t everyone else give up and leave these people to carry on alone?!
Then, there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, where writers are so talentless that you constantly wonder why they, specifically, don’t just give up and let everyone else carry on without them.
Shaun Micallef and Terry Pratchett are in the former category. Richard Curtis is squarely in the latter.
I bring this up because Curtis has a new movie coming out. I’ve written before about what a hack he is, but the new film has attained a previously unrecorded level of lazy and stupid. The premise is simple: What if we all forgot the Beatles?
That’s it. That’s the entire idea behind the film. It’s called “Yesterday,” despite the fact that it’s set in the very near future where nobody has heard of the Beatles and there’s a Beatles track called “Tomorrow Never Knows.” That, presumably, would require the audience to think a little bit or to know some slightly less famous Beatles tracks.
In fact, there’s an Alan Partridge joke that Steve Coogan’s hopelessly uncool radio presenter’s favourite band is The Beatles and his favourite album is “Best of The Beatles,” because Alan Partridge is exactly the sort of oblivious, dull, basic fuckwit that Curtis’ new film is aimed at.*
If the appeal to the tedious and stupid weren’t galling enough, the sheer laziness of the world building on show in “Yesterday” is mind boggling. It’s a contemporary movie, so we’re assuming that… what? The Beatles have been wiped from history but everything else continued exactly the same? Because this leaves a lot of gaps in terms of influence.
Consider Led Zepplin. When Robert Plant and Jimmy Page mentioned to Ringo Starr that they were starting a band, Starr quipped that it “would go down like a lead zeppelin.” So… Are Zepplin still a thing in this universe? If so, who named them? Does James Taylor still tour in the world of “Yesterday” ? Because he got his start on Apple Records, but is otherwise largely unrelated. Did Monty Python release Life of Brian? Because George Harrison funded that film with his limitless Beatle money.
These questions are all interesting, and play into the butterfly effect — the idea that small changes can cause enormous repercussions. Richard Curtis is too lazy or stupid (or both) to explore any of that, however, as he’s made a career out of stealing other people’s work to do the heavy lifting for him. The best moment in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” is the reading of a W. H. Auden poem, while “Love Actually” leverages the actual September 11th attacks for emotional resonance, meaning that Curtis isn’t above using terrorist atrocities for his own ends. In this movie, rather than explore what would happen if a pop culture keystone were removed, he instead uses it as an excuse to have someone sing a lot of Beatles songs, because everyone likes those and it saves Curtis from doing anything original to please an audience.
Of course, even the idea that someone could be successful with the now unknown Beatles back catalogue is iffy. Assuming that reality is exactly the same in the film as it is outside, except that the Beatles have magically vanished, music would be pretty fucking raunchy in the 2019 of “Yesterday.” That means songs about wanting to hold someone’s hand simply wouldn’t cut it. A lot of Beatles material (certainly their earlier, chirpy, pop stuff) would come off as unbearably twee and vanish without trace. Indeed, music would have become inexorably more sexual without the Beatles, as we presumably still had the Rolling Stones and David Bowie and Elvis and The Who and The Kinks and other acts that would have pushed the boundaries ever outward. (Unless of course the Beatles vanishing means that they never wrote “I Wanna Be Your Man” for the Stones and then the Stones might vanish, too, and we’re back at the unexplored butterfly effect and the spectre of a more interesting film.)
Even if the hero of “Yesterday” did manage to find success with “Love Me Do” et al, it would be almost impossible for the simple reason that the Beatles, very famously, were a band. Not one guy. There’s a lot of close harmonies on early Beatles tracks that can’t be recreated with a single voice, to say nothing of the increasingly complicated musical ideas that blossomed as the group went on. The idea that any idiot with a guitar can reproduce what the Beatles did is reductive and betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of a number of musical concepts.
More than anything, however, it’s insulting to the Beatles themselves to imply that their work stands apart from their personal efforts — that they had the ability to write great songs and innovate because they were just inherently, magically good at doing it. If the hero of “Yesterday” can just turn up and start cranking out Beatles tunes by himself without effort, it ignores how many hours went into the original songs. The easy (but incorrect) publicly accepted narrtive seems to be that Lennon and McCartney were channelling some ethereal creative force instead of constantly working at improving their music. Any sort of genius is, to borrow the old addage, ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. All of the Beatles worked, (Ringo again) “eight days a week” to achieve their success, which is probably why they ultimately imploded. (Ringo might not have been much of a songwriter, but he had a great turn of phrase. It was also he who described a gig as being “A hard day’s night” and thereby spawned another title.)
Of course, the fact that Richard Curtis doesn’t understand working hard at something to turn it into the best version of itself shouldn’t be any sort of surprise. The entire idea behind “Yesterday” is itself lifted from mediocre 90s sitcom “Goodnight Sweetheart,” in which Nicholas Lyndhurst finds a portal that allows him to travel back to the 1940s and uses it to commit adultery and plagiarise Beatles songs that haven’t yet been written.
Because the Beatles worked at their music rather than just lucking into it, it’s also important to note that other people would have worked hard and would have wound up at the same places, sooner or later. Some people say that had Buddy Holly not died, the Beatles would never have been such a creative force, as Holly was already experimenting with putting orchestral sounds on his records by the late 1950s. Similarly, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys made a number of innovations on the “Pet Sounds” album that directly influenced the Beatles on “Sergeant Pepper,” to say nothing of the influences of people like Bob Dylan or Chuck Berry or Little Richard. The simple fact is that if the Beatles hadn’t existed, some other distillation of all of their influences eventually would have.
It’s actually more interesting to ponder what the world would look like without Dylan, or without Johnny Johnson’s piano for Chuck Berry to rip off. But these questions won’t make that sweet, lazy Richard Curtis dollar.
Because Curtis doesn’t care about any of this. He just wants to bilk a few more million out of the sort of cretins who will turn up to see a film that features songs they like rather than just listening to the songs at home.
Elsewhere, they’ve anounced another Mama Mia film, too…
*The Beatles’ original drummer, Pete Best, was sacked on the cusp of the group’s fame and replaced with Ringo Starr. Best went on to release his own album, “Best of the Beatles,” as a short con/play on words. It was legally untouchable despite containing no material from the actual Beatles, and sold very well to confused record buyers. It’s possible, although slightly obscure, that the joke is meant to be that Alan Partridge thinks he likes the Beatles but actually has only ever heard a knock-off record by Pete Best and is so musically clueless that he assumes it’s them.