What would our world look like if the Beatles had never existed?
That’s the question the movie Yesterday (2019) promises to explore; and I think we can all agree, it’s a fascinating one. By the end of the movie, though, this promise falls flat, when the film’s answer to “what would the world look like without the Beatles?” turns out to be, “basically… the same?”
Allow me to explain.
Yesterday follows Jack Malik, a young singer/songwriter in the present-day UK. Jack struggles to hold an audience, struggles to pay the bills, struggles with his feelings for his best friend Ellie—you get the picture. Oh, and he loves the Beatles, because what Brit doesn’t? But when a freak global power outage somehow erases his beloved Beatles from the timeline, Jack sets out on a crusade to introduce their music to the world.
I say “erased from the timeline,” not “erased from public memory,” because the former is the more accurate description. This is not mass amnesia. It’s not that the Beatles exist, with only Jack able to remember them. It’s that the Beatles, in this new version of reality, never made music at all! Their recordings are gone. Their CDs have vanished. Their vinyl, wiped from the face of the earth. Their names don’t register in a Google search. Yet Jack somehow is still connected to the alternate timeline in which the Beatles did record those famous hits, so he’s still got their tunes implanted in his brain.
We’re never told how a 12-second power outage could create an alternate timeline, and we never learn why Jack is the only one who remembers the previous reality, but those questions aren’t the biggest missing piece here. I am willing to accept, for the sake of argument, for the sake of a fun movie, that such things could theoretically happen. What I want to know is—if the Beatles never existed, how did that change our history? How did that change our culture, our fashion, sexuality, norms, taboos and our music?
Come on. Think about it. The Beatles were the first boy band. The first true pop stars. They defined “teenager” at a time when that term was still brand new. They were the nightmare of every middle-class parent on both sides of the Atlantic. They gate-crashed 1950s sexual repression. They were the voice and face of the Swinging Sixties. Beatlemania was real, and Beatlemania changed things. You cannot wipe Beatlemania from history without consequences.
But Yesterday tries to do just that. Look at Ed Sheeran’s cameo. The Beatles have disappeared, but it hasn’t affected Ed’s style or stardom one bit. He’s still warbling about true love, strumming his guitar, and making the girls scream. Yesterday wants us to believe Ed Sheeran is out here being a teenage heartthrob, Paul-McCartney-style, without Paul, John, George, or Ringo to blaze the trail for him? I don’t buy it, Yesterday. If you’re intent on displaying the contemporary pop music scene as “exactly the same, just without the Beatles,” you need to come up with a corresponding timeline with a correspondingly huge cultural revolution. Who filled that gap? Who broke the status quo? Who changed our world, if the Beatles didn’t?
(And please—don’t say Elvis. Elvis was great, sure, but he didn’t do it on his own.)
The lesson here? Don’t mess with history, guys, unless you’re fully prepared for the fallout. If anyone needs me, I’ll be over here in the corner, humming “Let It Be.”