Yesterday is driven by an extremely lukewarm take: the Beatles are really good. The new rom-com, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Richard Curtis, uses a thin sci-fi premise—that the entire world, except for one singer-songwriter, forgets that the Beatles ever existed—as an excuse for many of their songs to be played for virgin ears and subsequently fawned over. And as everyone in the film falls in love with the songs, the audience is supposed to do the same, whether for the first or fiftieth time.
But the film’s renditions make it hard to do so. The songs of Yesterday, performed by its lead actor, Himesh Patel, are timid, crayon-etched replicas of the originals; they belong in a dive bar on a Tuesday night. In stripping down Beatles songs to their bare parts, Yesterday also strips them of their magic.
Yesterday is one of several reverent rock films to debut this summer—Rocketman, out last month, tells the story of Elton John’s rise, and Blinded by the Light, due Aug. 14, follows a British-Pakistani teen who becomes obsessed with Bruce Springsteen. But whereas Rocketman turns John’s songs into musical theater and Blinded by the Light argues for Springsteen’s enduring sociopolitical relevancy, Yesterday lives and dies on the believability of its covers.
Admittedly, it’s easy to take a curmudgeonly stance against bad cover songs: to argue that they desecrate hallowed recordings, or needlessly modernize songs. But Yesterday’s renditions don’t suffer from a lack of reverence—the problem is exactly the opposite. The film takes a strict constructionist approach to the Beatles canon, even replicating some solos note for note. In trying to remain so faithful to the originals, Yesterday misses an opportunity—and only reinforces the idea that the best Beatles covers are the ones that take the most liberties.
The Beatles ascended in an era during which cover songs were part of the pop ecosystem: Their first five albums are littered with energetic interpretations of blues, pop and R&B songs. As Beatlemania exploded across both sides of the Atlantic, many pop acts, including the Beach Boys and John Denver, faithfully trotted out Lennon-McCartney covers that hewed close to the originals.
But the best covers of that time period came from R&B artists, who recognized that the Beatles’ compositions were indebted to their own genre. These performers cast aside the Fab Four’s long shadow by abandoning any pretense of sonic loyalty and forcing the songs’ soul subtexts out into the open. Aretha Franklin added a vicious backbeat to “Eleanor Rigby,” turning a mundane existential dirge into a fierce celebration of the perseverance and solidarity of the working class. Stevie Wonder swapped out the whining stalemate of “We Can Work It Out” with jubilant call and response, a strutting clavinet and a bracing can-do attitude of transformation.
Other R&B artists claimed Lennon-McCartney songs for their own by audaciously stripping the songs of their keystone features. On Wilson Pickett’s “Hey Jude,” the “na na nas” can barely be heard; they’re drowned out by a hellacious battle between his guttural howls and Duane Allman’s screeching guitar solo. Otis Redding mostly discarded the trademark guitar riff of “Day Tripper”—but you barely miss it, as he fills the space with a jittery mania.
Perhaps the most famous Beatles cover is Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The two versions barely exist in the same musical world: The original is a mild jaunt, while the cover is a cascading sledgehammer of angst and catharsis. The deep contrast between the two shows that the song itself was ironclad but not inert; that even the most hallowed of recordings could even be improved on with inventiveness and sheer force of charisma.
Over the years, new generations have found success by imposing their own stylistic bents to songs that practically predicted entire musical eras. “Dear Prudence” sounds right at home in 1983 drenched in reverb, courtesy of Siouxsie and the Banshees. “Across the Universe” slid comfortably into a twee 1998 outfit, with Fiona Apple replacing stoned mawkishness for new-age beatitude.
And two film precursors of Yesterday—I Am Sam (2001) and Across the Universe (2007), which lean on Beatles soundtracks—succeeded to some level in their cohesion and self-assured visions. The former brought the prettiest Beatles songs into the indie rock world as wistful guitar-driven ditties, while the latter embraced the group’s most eccentric and theatrical impulses. Not everybody liked either—but both became beloved by superfans captivated by specific bubbles of the Beatles’ cavernous universe.
Yesterday’s soundtrack, on the other hand, lacks the specificity of those films’ points of view and aesthetic sensibilities. Its logic is circular and axiomatic—that the Beatles are great because they are the Beatles. Its genre can be best described as busk-rock: the versions of songs you hear in a train station. The spry and shrewd instrumental movement of the originals—Paul McCartney’s loping bass on “I Saw Her Standing There” or George Harrison’s anxious stabs on “Help”—are whited out by blocky and generic strumming. And while Patel puts an earnest effort into singing, he is given little chance to interpret the melodies or lyrics. (His most convincing performance is probably on “The Long and Winding Road,” in which his muted vocal power actually reinforces the narrator’s desperation and displacement.)
In straining to trace the original recordings, Yesterday’s covers give up an opportunity for replay value or a prolonged shelf-life. Perhaps this is the point: While these agile and timeless songs can be popularized by even a mediocre singer-songwriter like Patel’s character, Jack Malik, nothing comes close to the real thing, and we should all be grateful for the studio magic that emerged out of Abbey Road.
But musicians have time and time again proved that this is not true. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence is St. Vincent’s live version of “Dig A Pony,” which she took out on the road in 2009. While Jack Malik called his album of Beatles songs One Man Only, St. Vincent truly needed no one else to turn the bluesy 1970 deep cut into a breathtaking solo showcase: of her pinpoint and clipped voice; of her dextrous and soulful fuzz guitar antics; of a cheeky ingenuity that led her to switch microphones mid-song, cranking the intensity up to a blistering level. The Beatles certainly deserve to be revered—but when it comes to playing one of their songs anew, letting it be is a formula for failure.