“What would have happened to your lives if there had been no Beatles?”
My mother-in-law posed that question earlier this year, with no inkling that the alternative reality feature film “Yesterday” was on the horizon.
She was not being dismissive, simply curious. Over the years she had met so many people in my professional and personal circles with strong Beatles threads that to her it was an obvious question. How might our lives have turned out without the Beatles? Would we have intertwined at all?
After all, I first met future writing partner Harry Castleman in college through his radio show about The Beatles. There are countless others in my life like that, easily identified with a quick check of the editorial listings in Beatlefan or the guest lists at the Fest for Beatles Fans.
Yet I thought she posed an intriguing puzzle. Was an interest in The Beatles the only thing that connected us? Or were they the hook that opened a door that might well have opened anyway, if not in quite the same way?
Beyond the elevator pitch
As a result of such reflections, I approached “Yesterday” with more than mild curiosity at the easy elevator-pitch plot: one day, everyone forgets The Beatles, apart from one struggling musician who quickly realizes that only he remembers the most successful music catalogue in history.
It was a fun premise for a film that was actually much better than it needed to be, subversively clever in considering the implications of that change in reality. It was surprisingly daring in embracing the premise. There would be no “second bump on the head” putting everything back the way it was. No, reality had changed. Period. This was a new world, now let’s see what unfolds.
Accepting such an approach to “changing history” was probably helped by the ever-spinning realities put forth over at least a decade of super hero and fantasy tales, especially from Marvel (in feature films) and DC (on television). These are a far cry from the old science fiction trope that you can’t change anything. Go back to kill Hitler, and something will always prevent the completion of your mission.
Alternatively, there was the apocalyptic vision that if you go back in time (such as to the age of dinosaurs) and so much as step on a leaf or kill an insect, you’ll cause irreparable harm to the future.
Such films as “Avengers Endgame” or TV series such as “The Flash” have effectively cast aside such limits. The have made repeated changes to the “real” timelines in their stories. They weave alternative threads and pursue the implications, without going back to exactly “the way things were” before the disruption.
Imagine … anything that’s possible … is possible
So for “Yesterday” there are never-explained forces that changed things. Just accept those and follow the aftermath. Despite the absence of the music and the pop culture presence of The Beatles, guess what? The world kept on turning. People continued to be creative. There was love, adventure, art, and music. Without any inspiration from the Fab Four.
For fans, especially those of us who know far more minutia than we care to acknowledge, the idea that such a change would not leave a gaping hole in the universe is almost unfathomable. Yet that absence is part of what makes the execution of this film so sly.
The first time the other characters hear a Beatles song (beginning with “Yesterday”), they begin a journey of discovery. The Beatles music has not been rejected in this world. It was never part of the discussion. This approach rips the songs out of their original context and offers the challenge (for the characters and the audiences) to listen, really listen, for the first time.
Of course there are plenty of knowing winks throughout for viewers in our timeline who bring their knowledge to the story, and who might cringe at “Hey Dude” as an alternative title to “Hey Jude.” There’s also the realization that some of these songs are harder to recreate/remember than you might think, such as in the humorously staged pursuit of the detailed lyrical story line of “Eleanor Rigby.”
Yet in the process, the songs themselves become protagonists, required to prove themselves, without all the legends surrounding them. No Ed Sullivan Show shared experiences. No Summer of Love. No Ballad of John and Yoko.
Returning to my mother-in-law’s opening question: Inspired by “Yesterday,” I would assert that even without Beatles, not only would our creative lives indeed have gone on, we might all have discovered each other anyway through different paths.
An optimistic outlook, to be sure, but the film adds the flourish of other seemingly irreplaceable aspects of life disappearing but with another smoothly filling in. (Such as Pepsi for the absent Coke.)
In truth, in the “Yesterday” alternative world, the songs are not going to serve the same purpose there as in the “real” timeline. They will not be the growing up touchstones for society.
Instead, just like in our real life, this will be like a new generation discovering the art of the Marx Brothers or Humphrey Bogart decades after their works first appeared.
Ultimately, the themes from “Yesterday” return to our own real life music reality. This is like introducing The Beatles to contemporary circles for whom naming all four group members would be considered a tough trivia question. (Yes, I run into that all the time.)
After we do so, we watch. And are not surprised when we see their musical legacy winning new circles of admirers. Once again.
Copyright 2019 by Walter J. Podrazik. This essay also appears in the July-Aug. 2019 issue of Beatlefan magazine #239. Order info at firstname.lastname@example.org