One night, in a plush room after a few rounds of Sambuca, when the evening was drawing to a close, a question was asked among friends – half in jest.
“What do you think music would be like today if not for the Beatles?”
As the rules of conversation had ceased to be coherent, this was answered with another question.
“Well, if the Beatles weren’t the Beatles, do you think anyone would have listened to the songs?”
Friends ponder over this for a moment. And the idea begins to bloom.
“If the Beatles were around today, would they still be successful? Would people LIKE the Beatles?”
Call it pure conjecture, naturally, but this could well have been the session of revelation that planted the seed for Jack Barth’s ‘Cover Version’, which later became Richard Curtis’ Yesterday.
This is a story adapted for film by Danny Boyle, and it begins to seem as though it’s a comic tale about a young man, Jack Malik, and his interminable love for music which is given a boost by his opportunistic commandeering of the Beatles’ work.
Jack, an unrecognised talent in the music industry and a sort-of schoolteacher by day, is hit by a bus on his way home from a gig after being dropped off by his ultra-loyal manager and admirer, Ellie, and finds that when he regains consciousness, all memory of the Beatles has been erased from his world – including their music.
He decides to take on their songs and perform them as a one-man Beatle, reaping the historic fame and rewards that came with exceptional songwriting and performance. At its best, the film should have been about the corrupting pursuit of fame – about deception, greatness and singularity.
Unfortunately, in its cinematic iteration, Yesterday comes across as a clinical, shallow and confused example of a self-involved love story; the result of an ideas tap running dry before the tub filled up.
While it is fair to conclude that Yesterday came from a place of admiration and love for those boys in the band, it really had nothing at all to say about musicianship.
That film demonstrated no real understanding of the fabric of the Beatles – what made them truly exceptional in their own time, and in ours, too. It wanted to decontextualise the music, and argue for timelessness.
But the Beatles were a context-heavy band. They are woven into the cultural zeitgeist of the 1960s, and one of the most enchanting things about their work is how serendipitous each of their creations were.
In fact, it is easy to lose sight of how much chance was involved in the meeting of minds between John, Paul, George, Ringo. In Craig Brown’s raucous and colourful tome of Beatleology One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, he opens early in his book with an illustration of two scenarios for the reader.
First, scenario a). While they don’t consider each other potential romantic partners, Jim McCartney and Mary Mohin have spent some time together as Mary lodges with Jim’s sister. During an aerial bombing in wartime Liverpool, Mary has to stay overnight at Jim’s mum’s. They talk and talk, and know they’ve got a connection. They marry. Macca is born.
Then, scenario b). The air raid never comes. Mary never stays overnight at Jim’s mum’s. Macca is never born. The Beatles never are.
Time and place are truly integral to the birth of the band and their trajectory. The summit of their careers coincided with pop movements across cultural institutions in Britain – and across the globe – whose missions were to create works that reflected the throwaway trends and fast consumption that defined the sixties.
Ironically, of course, many of these artists produced pieces that became timeless markers of an exploratory era.
From Fluxus to Boty and Paolozzi, the legacies of the artist contemporaries of the Beatles now exist dichotomously as momentary spectacles and everlasting displays of experimental artisanship.
The products of the Beatles’ craft are enjoyed still perhaps because of their innovative technical qualities, their whimsy, the encompassing worldview and personality injected into all songwriting.
Curtis and Boyle’s Yesterday misrepresented the connection between the Beatles and the people. If one man could pluck the songs from the void, perform them with no real motivation or understanding – other than the fact that he can, and he wants to – then that music is cheapened, and made meaningless.
It would be like trying to paint a de Kooning in 2021. You’ve got all the ingredients, you know the style. You can mimic, and you can recreate – you can even nail the texture, and make the painting breathe.
But you’re not de Kooning. And the time for his work has long since passed. It wouldn’t impress, and it certainly wouldn’t make sense.
There’s no magic in Yesterday’s vision of the creative process. And the songs that the writers chose to illustrate the story were fairly counterintuitive to the theme.
Why did the filmmakers choose the tracks they did?
Instead of going with:
Moment when Jack is weighing up his fame with his life outside of music = Can’t Buy Me Love.
Moment when Jack is a struggling musician who can’t catch a break and is stuck in a creative rut = Nowhere Man.
They went with:
Moment in studio = I Want To Hold Your Hand.
Moment in studio = I Saw Her Standing There.
Why choose songs that – while brilliant and highly listenable, in their own right – are arguably some of the least likely to be able to break through in this era with the lyrics as they are?
“She was just 17, if you know what I mean.” Would we know what that meant? And if we did know what it meant, would we still really want to hear it from a global megastar’s mouth? And what about the name of Penny Lane?
But how closely, then, could you tie a narrative into all manner of Beatles tracks based on lyrics alone?
Very closely. The boys did this themselves, and the payoff was – for the most part – spectacular.
Think about A Hard Day’s Night. That rambling, freewheeling, youthful, technical masterwork which had its own genre-defining style.
The Beatles were self-mocking, and seriously witty. You’d be hard-pressed to find another British comedy film from ’64 that can still stand up as a source of ultimate fun.
(And on that note, it isn’t difficult to think of plenty of examples that can be watched only through the cracks in your fingers. Probably with clenched teeth.)
Something troubling about the way the Beatles’ music is presented in Yesterday is that it becomes straight-laced, too perfect – dull.
There are missed opportunities for gags all over the place, but the film also lacks any serious tension; here’s a lad who’s allowed to do exactly as he pleases, with no one to stop him but himself.
And when two Beatle-knowing mystics arrive to presumably throw a spanner in the works as they confront Jack about his appropriation of the Beatles’ songs, they merely appear to congratulate and thank him on his good work bringing the music back into the world – then, they’re away.
Where there should be conflict, we find none. John and Paul were notoriously different in character, but the collision of their occasionally polarised perspectives was a driving force behind the storytelling within their songs. Conflict was not antagonistic, but healthy – and realistically productive.
And there were times when the band themselves were unhappy with what they produced. Myth can be mendacious, so to assume that all the work felt triumphant when it was still in the making is a fallacy.
The problem with the concept of a one-man Beatles in the first instance is that they had to be a gang of four. They inspired each other with abundances of influences, and tempered one another’s wilder creative tendencies. But there was always a space for each to have their voices heard.
Their creations were open, embracing, and fed from the outside in. Yesterday’s power dynamic is all wrong. There, the creations are closed-off, owned, and earnest.
Even the love story in Yesterday is colder and far more outdated than a sixties pop song. Poor Ellie, who hasn’t been given a personality or life of her own (apart from “teacher”, which is an occupation rather than a human trait), pines after Jack and lives to serve his every whim when he has no time for her.
He lies, he mopes, and behaves in selfish ways – but has little self-awareness, and fails to put any of those experiences into a musical medium.
And as soon as Ellie decides to regain some agency by pursuing the life she wants and finds a little happiness, she chucks it at the first sign of interest Jack offers her. Only once he’s decided to chuck in his own music career.
All of this, of course, is truly inconsequential to the legacy of the Beatles: their music, their talents, their lives, experiences, the art they created.
Which is why Yesterday should be kept distant from the Beatles’ back catalogue, especially from their lives on film. It never asked why the Beatles’ songs were so revered, it merely stated: because.
What I hope Peter Jackson’s Get Back will be able to show is the symbiotic relationship between four talented and eccentric young men that nourished their creativity, and catalysed the writing process behind profoundly unparalleled pieces of music.
“If the Beatles were around today, would they still be successful?”
Probably not. And who cares? Whatever “success” is, it can’t be replicated. And if you’re seeking it out, then you’re miles away from where the fab four began.
Instead of worrying about what could have been in the Beatles’ legacy, take some advice: let it be.