What if you woke up tomorrow knowing without a doubt you could write a bestseller? Paint a picture worth a million dollars? Release an album that was guaranteed to go to #1 on the charts?
What would you do?
This is the question behind Yesterday, a charming movie that pays homage to the works of The Beatles by erasing them from the world. Yesterday is a “what if” movie — What if The Beatles never existed? Himish Patel (best known for his work on the British soap Eastenders) plays down-on-his-luck musician Jack Malik, who wants someone to like his music other than his best friend Ellie (played by Lily James).
In the standard alternate-reality trope, Jack gets hit by a bus at the exact moment the entire world loses electricity. He wakes up in the hospital, feeling even worse about himself. Later that day, he meets up with some friends and his best friend Ellie gives him a beautiful guitar. Despite his busted teeth, Jack picks it up and says, “a great guitar deserves a great song.” He plays “Yesterday” by The Beatles.
“Where did that come from?” Ellie asks in shock. Jack realizes that his friends have never heard of The Beatles — the band that has shaped his entire creative outlook. He then sets out on a journey to recreate every song by The Beatles and get those songs out into the world.
Putting aside the movie’s commentary about copyright and who “owns” popular works (how much do fans get to have a say?), I was fascinated with the premise of Yesterday and the question it raises for creatives.
Jack is faced with a quandary — should he play the songs of The Beatles, making sure that the new Beatle-less world is able to enjoy them and love them? And can he even live up to the sheer awesomeness of those songs? This is the surface question of the film. But the deeper question is about the creative process itself. Even if we are given the opportunity — we may still fail.
Creativity is complicated. I’m a writer and book editor, and I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve told someone what I do for a living and heard that age-old response: “I have a great idea for a book.” But ideas don’t equal books. Just having an idea means nothing. There are a thousand ideas. There are a million ideas. There are ideas everywhere — floating in the ether above you as we speak.
New writers are often obsessed with the idea that someone is going to steal their idea or write it first. But the reality is that great ideas don’t add up to a great book. Just because you know an idea is phenomenal doesn’t mean that you’ll be successful at writing the book. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll finish the book. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll publish the book and it will be a bestseller.
Even if you could *know* without a doubt that your idea is perfect — there’s still a chance that you’d falter.
That’s the most terrifying thing about putting your work out there.
There’s a moment in the film where Jack is playing Beatles songs at bars and no one is listening. He tries to play “Let it be” for his parents and they keep interrupting him, clearly having no idea that they are supposed to be listening to one of the greatest songs ever written. “ Christ!” Jack screams at them. This is Let It Be! You’re the first people on Earth to hear this song! This is like watching da Vinci paint The Mona Lisa right in front of your bloody eyes! Can you not just be quiet for a single second?” At this point in the film, the viewer begins to fear, along with Jack, that he will fail. The tragedy for Jack would be that he won’t become a successful vocal artist. But the real tragedy would be that no one will have heard the wonderful songs that we all know and love.
Jack spends hours trying to remember the lyrics of popular Beatles songs. He stays up late, making a grid of songs on his wall, slowly relearning the tunes he’s heard his entire life. The songs are there — but he has to execute them, to get them on the page. It’s really hard, especially when it comes to recreating some of the most technically complicated songs in history.
In the end, hard work is the only thing that wins out. At the beginning of the movie, we see Jack playing his same songs over and over, even when no one comes to his shows or likes his music. He’s fallen for a classic writer blunder — refusing to write new work when he knows the old stuff just doesn’t have an audience. I’ve seen writers struggle with this too — sticking with one book for ten years, never able to move on or really finish their project. Jack approached recreating the work of The Beatles with the kind of enthusiasm he didn’t have for his own work. This isn’t to say that every project has to be fast or happens overnight. The lesson is that when something’s not working in your creative life, you have to be willing to grow.
Every artist approaches their work differently. But I think we need to let go of this concept of the perfect idea. Let’s face it, we’re not going to wake up tomorrow and find out that no one knows who J.K. Rowling or Harry Potter is. There’s no scenario where you skip out on the hard work.
Yesterday is at its heart a romantic comedy. It’s feel-good, has a great soundtrack (of course!), and has one of the best twists I’ve seen in a movie in ages. For fans of The Beatles, it’s a must-watch. But it’s also a meditation on creativity. I found myself leaving the movie thinking, we can’t rewrite the world as we know it. Even if someone dropped a perfect idea in your lap, you’d still have to make it work.
Interstellar Flight Magazine publishes essays on what’s new in the world of speculative genres. In the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, we need “writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope.” We use affiliate links and Patreon to pay our writers a fair wage. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.