‘Yesterday’ and the Ultimate Big Lie

Danny Boyle’s movie uses an extreme what-if situation to play with and distract from romantic comedy tropes.
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on September 29th, 2019

This article is part of Tropes Week, in which we’re exploring our favorite tropes from cinema history. Read more here.

Yesterday is not a movie about a world without The Beatles. No more than Aladdin is a movie about a world with a sudden new princedom or Splash is a movie about the existence of mermaids. Yesterday is your typical romantic comedy with a fantastical fairytale component that provides the film with a unique spin on conventional genre tropes while also allowing for clever jokes and an exaggerated take on a very familiar premise.

It’s easy to get hung up on the Beatles thing. Yesterday follows a struggling singer/songwriter, Jack (Himesh Patel), who, following a mysterious global electrical surge, wakes up and finds himself the only person to know about John, Paul, George, and Ringo and all their brilliant songs. He takes advantage of the situation by passing off everything from “She Loves You” to “The Long and Winding Road” as his own, which eventually brings him fame and fortune.

On the one hand, the premise is just a gimmicky rehash of the usual story of the rising star, particularly one where the hero realizes what he’s lost along the way, both in terms of what’s inside himself and physically the friends and loves left behind. Because of the sci-fi/fantasy aspect of Yesterday‘s catalyst, the movie has a Faustian feel to it, as Jack seems to have a sudden gift in which music and lyrics to masterpiece after masterpiece magically come to him.

And he experiences moral anxiety as a result of the secrets and lies. Stories in which people pass others’ work as their own tend to be darker, whether dramatic a la Morvern Callar or as black comedy like in World’s Greatest Dad. Because it’s typically a dead person’s work. In Yesterday, Jack has the benefit of the songs being by people who seem to have never existed at all, at least as far as the rest of the world is concerned. But the viewer knows, and we may judge him for it.

The big lie in romantic comedy doesn’t normally involve a secret that only the audience knows — that only the audience can know. Otherwise, there’s no buildup of lies on top of the original lie leading to a major miscommunication that threatens the romantic relationship on the basis of deception and mistrust. Yesterday does reveal other characters who might expose Jack’s lie. But the movie mostly deals with his personal struggle with the lie and the internal guilt he feels.

Yesterday’s use of the big lie doesn’t impact the romantic narrative the way we expect in rom-coms, either. Normally, whether it be in a sitcom like The Honeymooners or Perfect Strangers or a movie such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, The Shop Around the Corner, While You Were Sleeping, About a Boy, and numerous titles involving Shakespearean disguise or Pygmalion-inspired wagers, and even the fantastical varieties like Aladdin, Splash, any body-swap film, it’s a love interest who is most hurt by the secret or lie, after which the lying party must make it up to him or her to set things right.

In this movie, the love interest, Jack’s gal pal and manager, Ellie (Lily James), is greatly affected by the big lie. Passing the Beatles song as his own takes Jack across the world to the machinations of the record industry and marketing meetings and away from the one person who always loved and believed in him. He’s not necessarily directly lying to her, and he doesn’t even know about the romantic connection anyway, yet the lie does wind up separating them physically and then personally, not due to a trust issue but because he screws up his priorities.

By traditional rom-com plotting, Jack does hurt another woman more with his big lie, though she is not a love interest. Playing with the trope with non-romantic pairings isn’t that uncommon lately, especially in “bromance” pictures. In Yesterday, it’s a business relationship. The lie draws in Debra (Kate McKinnon), a big-time agent from Los Angeles, and when the lie is revealed, she is the most upset. Understandably, due to her financial investment in the lie. But Jack never needs to win her back by regaining her trust. She’s the non-romantic “romantic false lead,” the Aldus Snow, the Tad Hamilton, the Idina Menzel character in Enchanted, the Baxter/Ralph Bellamy role. Ultimately rejected for the hero’s realized true love.

Of course, the seemingly silly premise, which surely has turned off a lot of people from watching what’s essentially just another Richard Curtis charmer, does weigh on the movie tremendously because of how extreme and exaggerated the situation is. The kind that leaves a lot of people wondering more about the details of a world without the Beatles than the details of genre subversion. It has to be such a big lie, though, for the audience to believe this lie would work out so well.

And if we don’t think too much about what happened, how it happened, and what it means for everything and everyone whom the Beatles impacted from Terry Gilliam’s directorial career to the Manson Family murders, and if we ignore the contextual bases and meaning of most of the Beatles’ music and the context of half a century later (“I Saw Her Standing There” written today would raise some red flags), the premise does have some enjoyable fun with the gag, paying loving tribute to the group as recognition of their talent and cultural significance while also making a lot of jokes specific to the Fab Four and their songs (“Hey Jude” becoming “Hey Dude”) and generally about music and memory (the ongoing elusiveness of the “Eleanor Rigby” lyrics). It’s a very big premise but it can be appreciated in a lot of little ways if we suspend our belief and cynicism. 

The extreme scope of the premise and the lie does benefit the movie in some ways with its ridiculousness. It distracts from the common tropes and cliches that aren’t tinkered with. For instance, having Ellie be the stereotypical best friend of the opposite sex who does so much for the main character, who takes her for granted and somehow never realizes she’s in love with him, that’s kind of dumber and more unbelievable than the whole world without the Beatles thing. But does the story work without that trope? Could she be known by Jack as a romantic possibility but one left behind when his career picks up — similar to all the first wives in music biopics back home taking care of the kids or just coping with abandonment or, in cases like Bohemian Rhapsody, the fact that the hero is gay? Perhaps, but then Jack’s third act realization of what he had all along from the start wouldn’t be so hugely felt, at least for him.

Yesterday makes plenty of attempts to remind the audience that the world without the Beatles thing is an inconsequential matter as far as the heart of the story is concerned. Nobody needs to be working out what a world without Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and/or Harry Potter actually looks like, either. It just so happens that Curtis and co-writer Jack Barth and director Danny Boyle use, in a tradition of what-if movies like It’s a Wonderful Life, Stranger Than Fiction, Groundhog Day, Big, and others, the ultimate example as far as cultural implications.

The movie has been dismissed for its gimmick, whether by serious Beatles fans (can you appreciate the pastiche of Across the Universe but not this?) or rom-com avoiders with an additional cheesy aspect to scoff at. But it was a huge sleeper hit during the summer, likely due to its charming leads and the understanding that it’s actually, beneath the overlying contrivance, a satisfyingly familiar and ordinary fairytale all the way to the extended happy ending.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.