Here’s a question: What do you do with a movie that isn’t what you think it ought to be? I don’t mean a movie that tries to be one thing and fails, but rather one that simply has no intention of being or doing what you want it to?
The new movie from Danny Boyle, Yesterday, posits a world where, through some glitch in space-time, The Beatles never existed — except that one wildly unsuccessful musician in Suffolk, England, remembers they definitely did, and what’s more, he remembers all their songs. When he off-handedly plays one of their tunes for some friends, they’re blown away by what they think is his newly stunning songwriting talent, and through a series of mostly ridiculous events involving Ed Sheeran, our hero becomes a major star, based solely on the fact that he’s playing the Beatles catalog to a world that’s never heard it before and believes it's his.
It’s a pretty great premise! And one that opens up all sorts of fascinating questions about what constitutes art, who really owns art, and whether moral ambiguity is acceptable in pursuit of a greater cause. They’re great questions…that the movie makes absolutely clear it has no interest in addressing. No, Yesterday wants to be a sweet, charming, and generally inconsequential romantic comedy. And it is what it wants to be, having been written by Richard Curtis, the man behind Notting Hill and Love, Actually.
But if the movie is going to bring up such ideas, does it have an obligation to explore them in any real way? I’m actually going to argue it doesn’t. Because it doesn’t do a bad job at addressing them, it just ignores them. It doesn’t care. I 100 percent understand the frustration of anyone who has a problem with this, but for me, it’s fine. I’ve seen plenty of articles exploring the movie’s philosophical and ethical implications, and I’m encouraged that people are taking that on themselves. But if a movie just wants to be a few hours of entertainment, that’s its prerogative, and that’s exactly what Yesterday delivers.