Why Yesterday Made Me Cry

A writer contemplates how a film that imagines a 78-year-old John Lennon could actually be moving.

For all the laughs, your nervous system will still be emitting pulses of low-level alarm throughout Yesterday. (Jonathan Prime / Universal Pictures)

This article contains spoilers for Yesterday.

“Are you crying?” asked my son, 17, with ions of distaste pinging off him in the theater’s half-darkness. We were watching the silliest scene in the very silly Yesterday, and I was indeed snuffling. I was sentimentally seeping. I was crying. Why? Because—in the universe proposed by the movie—John Lennon did not get assassinated in December 1980. He didn’t get abruptly taken from us. No, John is living quietly by the sea, age 78.

You may have heard about Yesterday. Written by Richard Curtis, directed by Danny Boyle, the whole movie spins and jangles out of one gorgeously bananas premise. After a power surge in the biosphere, or a fluky gust of solar radiation, or something, reality winks out for 12 seconds—and when it buzzes back online, everything’s the same as before. With one difference: The Beatles never existed. The Beatles, Beatlemania, the solo careers—it’s all been wiped. Except, singularly, from the brain of a failed musician named Jack Malik, unconscious during the reality-wrinkle owing to a fortuitous bicycle accident. Jack (played by Himesh Patel) remembers some Beatles songs, and when he starts scuffing them out for people on his guitar, they not unnaturally assume that he is the greatest singer-songwriter who has ever lived.

Brilliant, right? Radiantly daft. But this is not a movie review. My colleague David Sims has already taken care of that. This is more of a mild consumer alert: If you love the Beatles, and you go to see this film, you might find yourself brimming a bit, pouting a bit, even dissolving in your seat and suffering the scorn of your teenage offspring. Because Yesterday is strangely and colossally moving.

It’s not just the un-murdering of Lennon. Although that is a remarkable moment, and beautifully done. Jack stands outside a cottage on a breezy coastal day, knocks; the door is opened by a skeptical, aquiline, instantly knowable old man in little round glasses. “Are you … John?” Jack asks, wonderstruck. “From Liverpool?” There’s a kind of biblical recognition in the encounter, a resonance from other realms and depths of time. And a redemption, too, I suppose. Because if Lennon lives, that’s one less terrible thing that happened, one less rupture, one less alteration. The weight of actuality lifts; trouble is dispelled. We can breathe.

But it wasn’t just this scene. I also gaped tearfully when Jack, not yet a superstar with his Beatles songs, went on local TV and played “In My Life.” Ian MacDonald, in his classic Beatles study Revolution in the Head, wrote of the “calm fatalism” of the song. In Yesterday, with the studio couch and the goofy interviewer sitting there, it sounds impossibly wise and resigned, a lucid pool of memory into which the songwriter (Lennon, then only 25) is gazing with premature detachment. In my life / I’ve loved them all. Later, in a song battle with Ed Sheeran, Jack uncorks McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road.” Doleful, vulnerable, but bravely riding its spirals of melody: What a song. Again, mysteriously amplified by that fluffy Yesterday context, it sounds like love, loss, hope, experience itself.

Finally, for all the laughs—and there are many; it’s very well written—your nervous system will still be emitting pulses of low-level alarm throughout Yesterday, simply at the idea of this blandly amnesiac world where the Beatles never were. The possibility itself is distressing at a pre-rational level. I know it’s distressing to me, because what would I, now 51, have done without the Beatles? Who would I be?