The science-fiction of ‘Yesterday’

I gave the recent Beatles-comedy ‘Yesterday’ a very short Hitchhiker’s Guide inspired review. Directed by Danny Boyle and written by Richard Curtis, I was hoping for something a bit more Boyle but it was pretty much Curtis: i.e. a whimsical, isn’t England sort of nice, fluff. There’s an under current of a film about talent and impostor syndrome but the film can’t really go examine that because the central character is an impostor of sorts and (spoiler) he gives it all up for true love (ahhh).

One other point as to why it wasn’t entirely harmless. There is an excellent cameo by Robert Carlyle who appears as an ageing John Lennon. Nicely acted but as others have pointed out, John Lennon is a very, very poor example of anybody who should be dishing out relationship advice. He was an abusive partner and a deeply messed up person in many ways. Pretending otherwise does him no favours.

However, what I wanted to talk about was the science fiction element of the film. So, if I may, I’ll recap the premise of the film as advertised initially.

Jack Mailk is a struggling singer-songwriter in a British seaside town. His career is going nowhere despite the support of his manager and childhood friend Ellie. Then one evening there is a worldwide blackout, during which Jack is hit by a bus. When he wakes up he discovers that everybody has forgotten the Beatles (and some other things). Jack revives his career by performing Beatles songs as his own…

The film is a light comedy and not a science fiction film, so the mechanism of what has occurred isn’t examined. I should add, that’s a smart choice — they ‘why and how’ of a strange happening doesn’t need to be examined* for a good story but the ‘why and how’ is part of how to look at a narrative science-ficitionally.

The addition of an old John Lennon, living a quiet and apparently fulfilled life on a remote cottage by the sea was interesting (with the caveats above) but it also settled a key question about the premise of the film: i.e. was the premise that everybody had forgotten the Beatles or was it that the Beatles had never existed? That Lennon is alive in the story demonstrated that history had actually changed — rather than some sort of collective mind-wipe, the history of the world Jack woke up to was quite different than the one he was living in before the bus hit him.

The film glosses over this but it changes a great deal. Jack is plagued by doubts because he feels the adulation he is getting for his music is unearned. Yet, in a world where those songs were never written until Jack wrote them, we just have a very weird creative process. Heck, there’s no reason why he even has to be secretive or when he does reveal the truth why he needs to give up. “My songs come from a parallel universe where they are written by a band of Scousers who from your perspective are imaginary” is as good an explanation of the creative process as any. Jack even gets some encouragement from the few other souls who remember the other history.

With our science-fiction goggles on, the film is an alternate-history/parallel universe story with a dash of portal fantasy. Jack has switched worlds. This implies another, more boring story, where a parallel Jack also wakes up in hospital to discover he is the only person who DOESN’T remember the Beatles (plus various other things).

Which takes me to the romantic plot of the film. The love interest, Ellie, has believed in Jack’s talent since school. We are told (and shown in flashback) the significant moment from their childhood, when Jack performed at a school concert and played “Wonderwall” by Oasis. Unstated, but implied, is that it is from this point that Ellie has secretly loved Jack.

Now with our understanding that post the accident, the Ellie we meet is actually a different character — an Ellie from a parallel universe with a different history — how does that change things? An early joke in the film is that Oasis never existed in this parallel universe (because the Gallagher brothers aimed to be the Beatles of Manchester). So what song did Jack sing at the school concert?

Did he sing Wonderwall? That wouldn’t have been quite as amazing as singing a Beatles song nobody had ever heard before but still an impressive bit of songwriting for a school kid (as the audience would perceive it). Except, in the parallel universe, presumably school-aged Jack is parallel-universe Jack and hence ALSO wouldn’t know of the Beatles or Oasis. Jack in the film remembers singing Wonderwall but this is a memory from a different universe with a different Ellie.

The issue with their relationship which becomes clear when Jack’s career suddenly takes off due to his Beatles covers, is that Jack has always treated Ellie as a friend and manager but never recognised or reciprocated that she is in love with him. Of course, this revelation (obvious as it is given that the film is a romantic comedy) only occurs IN THE PARALLEL UNIVERSE. That opens the question as to whether the actual Ellie he has been friends with for years was in love with him or actually, the Beatles-universe Ellie genuinely was just friends with him. But in that case…the Non-Beatles universe Ellie actually fell in love with a DIFFERENT Jack. The Jack she ends up with (is it a spoiler for a romantic comedy that the cute couple get together in the end?) isn’t the REAL Jack. Which, I don’t know, would bug me a lot more if I was him than the whole thinking he was fake because he didn’t write the Beatles songs he is playing.

I can’t see that ‘Wonderwall’ is accidental either. The film quite deliberately picks that as the song that school-aged Jack song, presumably to establish that his taste in songs included Beatles-derivative music and hence why he would be able to remember (sometimes with difficulty) the lyrics and music without help. Curtis isn’t a stranger to time-travel plots [eg and an episode of Doctor Who] so I wouldn’t be surprised if the weird disjointed chain of events around what Jack sang in the past was both intentional and intentionally unresolvable.

I should add, thinking about all of this in the final part of the film really doesn’t help the film at all though. If you haven’t seen it, best to take off the science fictional goggles and just go along with it…

*[but yes, I am examining it]

15 thoughts on “The science-fiction of ‘Yesterday’

  1. Well, “Wonderwall” is an iconic song for a certain generation of British people, so it makes sense to use that. But with no Beatles, you’d of course have no Oasis and hence no “Wonderwall”. Never mind that without the Beatles the entire evolution of popular music would have gone differently (most likely, rock ‘n roll would have remained dominant longer, the Rolling Stones would have played more blues rock than they did in our timeline and much of the mid to late 1960s flower power hippie music would be completely gone, which in turn would kill off subsequent movements that were reactions to that), so it’s quite possible that hardly any of the bands/musicians Jack knows would exist in this world or at least not the way he remembers them.

    I strongly suspect that Boyle and Curtis simply haven’t thought through the implications, because the main problem with alternate history is that if you change one thing, you’ll get a lot of cascading changes. That’s probably also why alternate history rarely works for me, because a lot of it simply hasn’t been thought through very well and is full of anachronisms.

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    1. There is a very strong implication in the film that the point of divergence between our reality and the parallel one is much earlier and unrelated to the Beatles. Although why everything else is the same obviously goes unquestioned

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      1. One thing I like about Quest for Love is that it throws in several little divergences without explanation: Everest remains unclimbed (the film is 1969) and Lesley Howard and JFK are still alive.

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  2. Films of parallel-universe love usually handwave away how different Romantic Interest and Alt.Romantic Interest would be. In Quest for Love, the hero falls in love with Joan Collins in another timeline, then returns home after her death and finds her counterpart, but she’s lived a completely different life. Nevertheless, we’re supposed to look at Collins, see it’s the same actor, and forget about it (I do like the film).
    I cover a lot of that stuff in a book on time-travel movies I wrote (

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  3. It’s hardly the first time this sort of thing has been played with, for that matter. And the Beatles get involved with this a lot; not surprising given (as you noted) the rather massive effect they had on the direction of musical experimentation.

    In the Otherworld TV series (1985) the children of the family that had been transported to the alternate world somewhat accidentally kickstart the Rock and Roll revolution by playing Beatles songs, which leads to them being treated with a rather cult-like fascination.

    In the movie Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Peggy Sue tries in the past to get her future furniture salesman husband to stick to his musical career by giving him Beatles songs (at least, ‘She Loves You’).

    And then there’s the Everyday Chemistry album (2009), which was described to have been a recording of songs written by the Beatles from a parallel universe where they never broke up. (Which, yeah, wasn’t likely; the film Yellow Submarine got made because they were already on the verge of a breakup, and that was started a couple of years before the final breakup.)

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    1. Lewis Shiner’s “Glimpses” has a protagonist who can alter time to create albums that never got made or didn’t get made the way the artists wanted. That includes a Beatles album that came out very differently from what Paul wanted.
      It’s an interesting concept but I was bored in the execution — spending several chapters hanging out with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys doesn’t engage my interest.

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  4. We were talking about the premise of the movie and the moral choices the protagonist has to make. And I said he’d feel a moral responsibility to get the Beatles’ songs out there since they didn’t exist in that universe. And my husband said that’s the utilitarian philosophy. Apparently there have been a lot of philosophy discussions about this movie on the Net, so in that case, it did what an alternate history story is supposed to do, I guess.

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      1. But it’s also exploitive as it may maximize benefit for a lot of people to preserve and release the songs into the alternate universe but the way he does so benefits himself. He could have pretended to find the songs by an anonymous composer, etc. He also has no way of knowing what negative effects occur from adding the songs to that universe, etc.

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