I’ve been to see the “good-time movie of the summer”: Yesterday, the story of a world in which the Beatles have never happened. It’s a clever idea, but the story line is incoherent—something about a parallel universe that the world enters after a twelve-second global blackout. A struggling singer-songwriter, Jack Malik, played by Himesh Patel, is knocked unconscious just before the blackout, and as a result is unaffected. He therefore remembers the Beatles when everyone else seems to have forgotten them.
When Jack plays “Yesterday” for some friends and not one of them knows it, he googles “The Beatles,” draws a blank after “beetles,” and we’re off. He relearns as many Beatles songs as he can recall and starts to pass them off as his own. Later on, two other people emerge who also remember the Fab Four, but the producers apparently didn’t think this needed explaining. We encounter one of the Beatles (spoiler alert!) in this parallel existence, but unimpressively—and bewilderingly for an audience already come to terms with the idea that John, Paul, George, and Richard have been snipped from history.
Some fascinating thoughts lurk about the precincts of the movie—like the imagining of a world from which such a significant cultural force has been extracted—but these questions are disposed of reductively along the lines of Oh gosh, no Beatles, no Oasis! You come away slightly uplifted but with the nagging feeling that you’ve been cheated—a promising idea has been sold short.
The music, though never straying from the Beatles’ Greatest Hits, is impressively executed: faithful, yet tweaked to suggest a mysterious shift from what we remember. For example, some songs sound like they might have been written after, rather than before, punk rock. The movie assumes that the songs, out of synch and time, will be as sensational as we remember. But this is a complicated matter, and it remains unaddressed. For example, I don’t think “Yesterday” (the song) has won the battle with time, but the movie assumes that everyone will start to scream and faint upon hearing it. The movie’s central gag relies on the assumed eternality of all the songs, but the difficulty is that music so iconic, wrapped up in nostalgia and sentimentality, cannot really be heard on its merits.
Yesterday exalts the Beatles’ music but doesn’t show how the world might have been malnourished without it. Coldplay, apparently, exists, though nobody seems to have asked how that could have happened if the Beatles hadn’t come first. Inevitably, given these premises, the charlatan ends up a global superstar. Ed Sheeran appears as himself, a rock star who likes the imposter’s material but thinks “Hey Jude” would be better as “Hey Dude.”
So the movie is interesting in a dogs-not-barking kind of way. The idea of human culture without an assumedly central element is for some reason beguiling, albeit otiose. As the plot unfolded, I found myself pondering whether it might ever be possible to measure the cultural contribution of something like the Beatles. We take for granted that this contribution has been self-evidently enormous, but has it? And, to the extent that it has been significant, is that influence healthy or otherwise?
In general, it would seem that, socially speaking, the boom of pop music/rock ’n’ roll over the past sixty-five years has not had many positive effects. For better or—more likely—worse, the society we have is the product more of television and the Internet than of what was once called the “counterculture.” But it is arguable that without the Beatles, there might have been no political correctness, identity politics, transgenderism, pseudo-progressivism, or cultural Marxism.
Paul McCartney was the great melodist of the Beatles, whereas John Lennon brought the rebel spirit and Celtic obsession with words, undoubtedly drawn from his Irish roots. Lennon & McCartney, along with producer George Martin, comprised the musical dynamo, but Lennon was the band’s political and philosophical genius.
Lennon started out as a sensible working-class Liverpudlian and remained so until he met Yoko Ono and started coming out with some woeful guff. He understood that rock ’n’ roll was capable of provoking thought as much as dance floor moves, of provoking the heart, gut, and head into a dance of understanding that left words standing by the wall. Many of us who grew up with the Beatles were engaged by his sense of irony, his raw masculinity, tenderness, and rage. He seemed on a mission to prove that stardom was nonsense—that his own fame was irrelevant to what he did. Lennon was the one most frustrated with the moptop model, the one who wanted the band to carry deeper messages and meanings. He wanted rock ’n’ roll to grow up, and offered his own existence—eventually his life—in illustrating what this might be about. Were he still around, I suspect, he would be railing as much as anyone against the senselessness spawned by the 1960s counterculture, demanding that the culture grow old and up with him.
Václav Havel, in jail in Czechoslovakia in December 1980 for defying communism, wrote to his wife Olga that Lennon’s assassination was “the death of the century,” marking an end to the hopes of the 1960s revolution of peace and love. It was the death also of the prospect that ’60s utopianism might have been re-evaluated to account for its limits and flaws.
Lennon was also a thoughtfully spiritual man in the sense that he had glimpsed the limits of human possibility and come to believe in something greater. In a Newsweek interview two months before his death, he said:
The real music comes to me, the music of the spheres, the music that surpasses the understanding, that has not to do with me; that I’m just a channel. So, for that to come through, which is the only joy for me out of the music, is for it to be given to me, and I transcribe it like a medium. But I have nothing to do with it other than I’m sitting under this tree and the whole damn thing comes down and I’ve just put it down.
Lennon’s post-Beatles music reveals itself in retrospect as weak and prone to sloganeering. “Imagine,” for example, voted the third greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone—beaten only by “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones and “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan—was the ultimate pantheistic-nihilist anthem: no possessions, no religion, no nations, no differences, no particularity of culture, nothing worth dying for.
Yesterday brought to mind a rather infamous Lennon episode from 1966, when America went insane after he carelessly told an interviewer that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” The interview was first published in March 1966, to negligible response, in the London Evening Standard. “Christianity will go,” he was quoted as saying.
It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ’n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.
Four months later, when it was republished in the American teen magazine Datebook, the quote sparked outrage, leading to KKK protests, death threats, and public burnings of Beatles records all over America. This brought the Beatles’ life as a touring band to an end. One fan particularly exercised was David Mark Chapman, at the time a born-again Christian who was among those who destroyed their Beatles records. Fourteen years later, he fetched up at the Dakota apartment building in New York City and, with a single shot, left Lennon dying on the sidewalk. This darkness is nowhere to be detected in Yesterday, which blinkers itself to cultural truths in pursuit of unadulterated good-time vibes.
Anyone who had followed Lennon’s thought processes would have known that the Jesus quote was a clumsy construction that became misconstrued. John was a muddled searcher, but an honest one. In 1977, he became deeply moved by NBC’s broadcast of the Franco Zefferrelli miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell as Jesus. He reportedly told friends that after seeing the movie he had become a born-again Christian. (He was later dissuaded by Yoko.) He also wrote some explicitly Christian songs, including one called “Talking with Jesus,” though none of these made it to vinyl. In the 1970s he became fascinated by evangelists like Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Oral Roberts, with whom he exchanged letters. In one letter, he apologized for the 1966 episode. He wrote: “Explain to me what Christianity can do for me. Is it phoney? Can He love me? I want out of hell.”
In a long-lost interview from 1969, discovered about a decade ago in the vaults of the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Lennon spoke of the controversy of three years before. “It's just an expression meaning the Beatles seem to me to have more influence over youth than Christ,” he said. “Now I wasn't saying that was a good idea, ’cos I'm one of Christ's biggest fans.”
Insofar as the state of Christianity throughout Western society is concerned, time might be said to have largely vindicated Lennon’s 1966 point. On the other hand, the number of Christians in the world has almost doubled since the 1960s, the Christian share of the population, at just under one-third, having remained roughly the same as it was then. But as Yesterday unwittingly implies, the cultural purchase of the Beatles may be waning more rapidly.
Thinking about the movie’s missed opportunities, it struck me that the cultural contribution of Christianity might be much easier to convey in story form than the contribution of any artistic entity or figure.
In his book The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success, Rodney Stark argues that the human effort to comprehend God’s handiwork led to the development of faith in human reason as a method of searching for the nature of God’s will. This led in turn to the scientific method that unleashed an unparalleled scientific revolution in Europe—at the core of this being the assumption of progress through rationality, which in turn led to capitalism, banking and the cash economy, private property rights, opposition to slavery, separation of church and state, the university, individualism, liberty, freedom, equality, and human rights.
Other major developments were driven by inventions such as water mills, windmills, padded horse collars, stirrups, iron horseshoes, wheeled plows, the three-field agri-system, cloth-making, spinning wheels, blast furnaces, chimneys, telescopes, firearms, eyeglasses, clocks, cannons, the compass, and mass manufactured paper—which led to the literary explosion of the middle ages (Dante, Chaucer, etc.). The development of coal-mining and associated technologies resulted in the growth of iron industries and railway transport; the use of oils on stretched canvas provoked the explosion of European art; music grew exponentially as a result of creations such as the violin, bass fiddle, clavichord, harpsichord, pipe organ, and developments like musical notation, polyphony, and harmony. To say nothing of the reason, truth, hope, beauty, empathy, unselfishness, and a thousand other elements that Christianity has delivered into our world.
Without Jesus, then, no Beatles, no “Let it Be,” no “Lovely Rita,” no peace and love. Imagine!
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of nine books, and a playwright.