Readers Write In #131: A fun premise and great songs hold up a predictable romance in ‘Yesterday’

Posted on January 15, 2020


(by Aparna Namboodiripad (who writes here as tonks)

When I was thirteen years old, a friend handed me a cassette that belonged to her older sister. It was the Sergeant Pepper album by the Beatles. That was my first introduction to the band. When I went home and listened to the album, song after mesmerising song entranced me. It wasn’t just that they sounded different from other bands I’d heard, their songs had an irrepressible energy to them that made them still enjoyable after repeat listenings.The emotion that hearing the Beatles for the first time evoked in me was re-lived while watching some of the scenes of the film that I saw last night.

The movie “Yesterday” imagines an alternate reality where (for an unspecified reason related to a global power failure) the Beatles do not exist. There is one young man (Jack Malik played by Himesh Patel) who remembers the universe where they did though, and he happens to be a struggling singer. In what is probably my favourite scene, when he gets a guitar as a gift from his friends, he strums and sings the song “Yesterday” for them. The sad beauty of the lyrics and the tune, helped by Patel’s simple but emotion charged rendering, moves his friends when they hear it for the first time, and through their reactions, I was taken back to the time when I had experienced the same thing. The movie goes on to explore this fantastic premise : what if we lived in a world where the Beatles never existed?

At the beginning, despite Malik singing Beatles’ hits, no one pays attention. At his home in front of his parents, he sings “Let it be” but is constantly interrupted, and later at a pub, he sings Beatles songs but no one is paying attention. There was a brief period where one wondered if the songs would fail to click after all, because a major ingredient of Beatlemania was missing : the charisma of the fab four, a combination of their boyish good looks, irrepressible energy, and vitality onstage. But then someone in the audience notices the quality of the songs Malik is singing, and his career takes off.

Another of my favourite scenes is when Ed Sheeran, who plays a very self deprecatory (bless his sweet soul) cameo of himself, challenges the hero Jack Malik (who despite being of Indian origin, is shown to be unambiguously British) to a dare. Each of them would take 10 minutes to write a song and see whose was better. Sheeran does a very decent job, but then Malik sings one of my favourite songs, the sad and beautiful “The long and winding road”, and Sheeran admits that Malik is the clear winner.  “You’re Mozart, I’m Salieri,” he says generously.

Another scene that I found particularly hilarious was where Malik tries desperately to remember the lyrics of Eleanor Rigby, and keeps getting them wrong. This difficulty in remembering lyrics pushes Malik to visit Liverpool in the hope of triggering his memory, and when he visits the red painted grilled gate that encloses Strawberry Fields, and the barber’s shop (“where he shaves another customer”) in Penny Lane, I was taken back to my visit to Liverpool four years back. I had signed up for an aptly named “Magical mystery” tour with a friend. We were the youngest two people there, the rest of the bus was filled with snowy haired people from all over the world who looked like they might have been teens in the sixties. In addition to Strawberry fields and Penny lane, the bus took us to the childhood homes of all four of the Beatles, and finally dropped us off at the Cavern club where the Beatles had performed in their early days. It was a cold, windy Saturday, and the pub featured musicians playing Beatles songs, and all of us sang along for an energetic version of “Hey Jude”.

A major part of the movie is a romance (that I found rather predictable), which is not surprising considering that the writer is Richard Curtis who also wrote “Love, actually”, “Four weddings and a funeral”, and “Notting hill”. Another part deals with Malik’s guilt about passing off Lennon and McCartney’s work as his own. But the part of the movie that worked best for me was the music. All 17 songs featured (from the very first title song, right down to the last one : a rousing Obladi Oblada) took me back to the magic they had created when heard for the first time and it would not be an exaggeration to say (as the lyrics of the song “Across the universe” go) that waves of joy were drifting through my opened mind, possessing and caressing me.