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Saturday, April 13, 2024

“Yesterday” offers musical fun with philosophical plot twists

Film questions trends and authenticity in music world

If you’re a fan of movies written by Richard Curtis (“Love Actually,” “Notting Hill” or “About Time”) or directed by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire” or “Trainspotting”), then you might want to watch “Yesterday.” Aspiring singer-songwriter Jack Malik, played by Himesh Patel, after being in an accident, wakes up in a world where rock group The Beatles never existed. The movie raises several interesting ethical and philosophical questions, among them: What would you do if you were a 27-year-old, failing singer-songwriter whose career never got off the ground and you suddenly found yourself possessing unique knowledge of already-written song masterpieces that no one else remembers?

I’m old enough to actually remember the tail end of The Beatles era, when my mom purchased a copy of the “Let It Be” album, The Beatles’ last album, for her record collection. Like the fictional Jack Malik, I too grew up as a guitar guy (as did John, Paul and George of The Beatles), and I too contemplated a music career. I can therefore empathize a little bit with Jack. As a child, I remember there being a lot of appeal and power in The Beatles’ music, but I don’t remember it being quite as spectacular as “Yesterday” makes it out to be.

In one scene, after Jack starts passing off The Beatles’ songs as his own, just as his career is catapulted toward superstardom, a silhouette of his head turns reddish-orange and cartoonish, with the image then expanding outwards in penumbras of different colors. Jack then walks in front of a huge wall of video comprised of three giant screens. Next to the screen that shows his music download statistics skyrocketing are flashy word graphics that convey that “his” lyrics are permeating worldwide culture, with scenes of fawning fans praising him as a kind of new pop music demigod.

Jack’s new manager Debra Hammer, played by Kate McKinnon, is so entranced with the goal of amassing personal wealth that she loses sight of the important things in life. She tries to pull Jack further into the dark side of the music industry.

The heart of the movie occurs in a backstage scene, when singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, playing himself, challenges Jack to a songwriting duel to see who can write the “best” song in 10 minutes’ time. Ed cranks out an alluring ballad, played fingerstyle. Jack is able to pull up Paul McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road” from memory, showing perhaps his unconscious attraction to Ellie Appleton, his soon-to-be former manager and friend since childhood (played by Lily James). In a poignant scene later on, Ellie confesses that she’s been waiting half her lifetime for Jack to fall in love with her, and she fears that waiting that long has been a big mistake.

Theodor Adorno, a philosopher-sociologist of the Frankfurt School, died less than a year before the original “Long and Winding Road” was released by The Beatles, and long before “Yesterday,” of course, but he would have a lot to say about this movie if he were alive. He would be very pleased at the unexpected action Jack takes in front of thousands of fans in order to come clean about the actual origins of the music just before telling Ellie that he loves her. He would marvel at the prospects that the internet has as a possible avenue for escaping the tyranny of the all-encompassing, negative effects of money on our lives. Why do rock musicians think that massive fame and financial fortune should be their main goals anyway? Don’t these pursuits contaminate the meaning of their music?

How could Jack have been so obsessed with “success” that he missed noticing Ellie’s long-standing attraction to him for so many years? Conversely, Adorno might reassure Ellie when she temporarily gave up on Jack that the notion of a single “best” romantic partner for oneself in the world is a myth. This myth can keep people mildly depressed and preoccupied to the extent that, when combined with other pressures, they have little stress-free time left over to question the nature of the totalizing economy that is increasingly taking over their lives. 

Adorno even regarded the current era of monopoly-dominated “late capitalism” that he saw accelerate during his lifetime as being just plain evil. Adorno was wary of humans’ tendency to take an idea that seems to work satisfactorily in some ways, but then over-apply and over-utilize it until things veer out of control. This happened to The Beatles when Beatlemania kicked into high gear, ascending them to heights of ultra-superstardom that had never been reached by any musical group before. “Yesterday” falters in not really exploring the topic of The Beatles’ musical dominance and in not acknowledging the African and Irish influences of Beat Music in the Liverpool area, from which their music evolved. Yes, they were great, but were they really that great? 

The penultimate scene in the movie ends on an ambiguous note, when Jack discovers something else that is missing in the world he woke up in after his accident on which he could capitalize. Will he fall victim to the lures of money and stardom again? Or has he learned his lesson? Adorno would say that it would be extremely difficult for the fictional Jack to truly understand the deep effects that socio-economic forces have on his thinking and actions, because those influences are deeply embedded in the bottom layers of his individuality. But he might say the fact that this movie exists should give us all much hope for the future. 

It would be a future where performing artists free themselves from seeking popularity for popularity’s sake and money for money’s sake. It would be a future where people, having less exposure to negative social forces, are better able to lead more authentic lives.

Written by: Brian Riley 

The writer is a PhD student at UC Davis, majoring in education, who admires the uplifting films written by Richard Curtis


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