Yesterday, the Beatles, and the Value of Earned Success

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The movie Yesterday is a tribute to the enduring legacy of popular music and its ability to bring joy to the human heart. Indeed, the movie succeeds as entertaining summer diversion. But it succeeds on another level as well by exploring the meaning and the dignity of work. 

The movie opens as struggling musician Jack Malik (British television actor Himesh Patel) bounces from unpaid gig to unpaid gig, hoping to make it big. Living at home, he has given up his job as a teacher to pursue his dream as a singer-songwriter with the encouragement of his life-long friend Ellie (Lily James, Darkest Hour, Mama Mia! Here We Go Again, Baby Driver). Ellie is his voluntary, part-time manager whose full-time gig is as a school teacher. 

When a power outage puts the entire world in the dark, Jack is hit by a bus during a nighttime ride back to his home. (Yes, this is a worn-out plot device, but accept it and enjoy the movie.) When Jack wakes up in the hospital, the world is off a bit. Most notably, the Beatles apparently never existed (as well as a few other significant cultural icons). When Jack plays a Beatles song for his friends during his recovery, he begins to realize that some sort of time discontinuity associated with the outage has erased the Beatles from popular music but not his memory. He has access to a repertoire of brilliant music that no one else has experienced.

Recognizing the value of the music, Ellie books Jack into more venues. His local popularity grows as he recreates standards. Eventually, contemporary musician Ed Sheeran, played by the real-life Ed Sheeran, hears Jack and invites him to open for him on his world tour. 

Yesterday never strays too far from its role as a tribute to the music of the Beatles. While Jack puts his own spin on the songs as a solo guitarist, his stripped-down interpretations are a pleasant reminder and testimony to enduring beauty of the Beatles’ most popular songs. Ironically, while paying homage to its influence on popular entertainment, the movie does not do justice to the revolutionary impact the Beatles had on music or the industry. (But then again, this is probably not the main point of the movie or the producers’ intent.)

Spoiler Alert! The remaining analysis draws on material derived from the movie, not the trailers, and may contain spoilers.

Yesterday’s plot focuses principally on one main theme: How does Jack reconcile his own commercial success with his plagiarism? His success transforms his guilt into shame, but he struggles to do the right thing. Complicating matters, when he tries to do the right thing, no one believes him. After all, the Beatles never existed. The tension ratchets up for Jack when even Ed Sheeran is forced to acknowledge the artistry of some of the Beatles classics. Ruthless pressure from a record label ready to reap the rewards of a commercial cash cow—led by Los Angeles super agent Debra Hammer and played by comedienne Kate McKinnon to refreshingly comic effects—just adds pressure. 

Yesterday would be easy to chalk up as a pleasant, entertaining summer escape except that it’s execution adds a few layers that may not even be appreciated fully. Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’ Diary) added much more depth.

True enough, Jack’s struggle is a moral and ethical one. He wrestles with the issue of whether it’s right to use someone else’s work without attribution, as well as whether his behavior is justifiable. But another aspect of Jack’s struggle deserves more attention: Other than ethics, why is Jack’s self-worth as a songwriter so debilitating? Quite simply, Jack believes his success is unearned.

Prior to the time shift, Jack has put his heart and soul into his own songs and performances. But he struggles with the fact his success is based on someone else’s work, even though no evidence exists that anyone else wrote the songs. No legal claim can be levied against him for their use. As a practical matter, all Jack struggles with is his conscience. But his inner conflict involves more than just his using someone else’s work. He is grappling with his deep-seated understanding of own self-worth and personal dignity. His struggle, and the associated guilt and shame, is centered on his awareness that he is not adding value through his own creative work. This becomes the major plot point in the movie. 

The importance of earned value in work is a key to human happiness. Social scientist Charles Murray provides a nice discussion of how work is critical to establishing one’s sense of self-worth and personal dignity in his book In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government (Simon & Schuster, 1988). More recently, former think tank president and current Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks pointed out the fundamental relationship between earned success, or the “ability to create value honestly,” and human happiness. The fact Boyle and Curtis build this into the theme of the movie and the character’s arc is a refreshing level of depth in what many might dismiss as simply a light-hearted romantic comedy.

Thus, Yesterday is more than summer entertainment. Rather, it’s a rare film that dives into deeper questions of human dignity, our responsibility toward others, and the importance of living an ethical life to achieve happiness. While guilt and shame drive much of Jack’s behavior and choices, Yesterday projects a greater story of losing and then reclaiming a sense of personal dignity and self-respect. Plus, the Beatles’ music is fun to watch and listen to, thanks to the movie’s top-flight casting and direction.

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