In the comedy-drama “Yesterday,” a struggling musician named Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) wakes up to find he’s the only person who remembers The Beatles.
Cautiously, Jack begins taking credit for the most astonishing catalog of songs in the history of popular music. Still, he can’t keep track of every little change in history caused by the Fab Four’s absence.
For starters, what about all the bands who followed in the Beatles’ footsteps? A quick web search for Oasis turns up nothing at all. “Well,” says Jack, “that figures.”
Written by Richard Curtis (“Love, Actually”) and directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting”), “Yesterday” opens with high expectations. Built on the music of the world’s best-known rock and roll band, it’s a potential crowd-pleaser that could appeal to several generations of music lovers.
Though much of the story concerns the attraction between Jack and his manager, Ellie (Lily James), “Yesterday” primarily poses an interesting question for those who deeply love The Beatles: How would life be different if your favorite band had never existed?
“Their work did more to change society than almost anyone else’s,” says Boyle, who grew up in England’s Manchester area with an entire family of Beatles fans and still has the 7-inch singles to prove it. “They weren’t just part of popular culture. With all due respect to Elvis, they began popular culture.”
Locally, the postwar suburbs of Long island were fertile ground for Beatlemania. According to Michael Epstein, owner of the recently-revived New York nightclub My Father’s Place, the pre-Beatles 1960s were a time when every household had a turntable and listeners were becoming familiar with the idea of the long-playing album, or LP. After the Beatles showed up in America’s living rooms on Ed Sullivan’s television show in February of 1964, the public was well-primed for the release of Capitol Records’ “Meet the Beatles!”
“If the Beatles came out in 1961 with an LP, no one would have bought it,” says Epstein. “It was all about the timing. Our parents had the stereos, and there were enough LPs around that people knew what they were.”
Much has been written about the Beatles lifting Americans out of their grief over President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, but subsequent generations formed their own emotional attachments to the band. Mitch Axelrod, 57, who co-hosts the podcast “Fab 4 Free 4 All,” says his mother’s love of the band trickled down to him.
“She put me in front the of TV when they were on Ed Sullivan,” Axelrod says, “and I’m told I watched. But it was when the Beatles cartoons came on — I was maybe three — those, I have memories of.”
Crudely animated and featuring voice-actors in place of the band members, “The Beatles” cartoons are often considered something of a cash-in. Axelrod, however, took solace in the cartoons during a childhood marked by his parents’ divorce and a sudden move from his native Queens to Long Island. As an adult, Axelrod wrote a book, “BeatleToons, The Real Story Behind the Cartoon Beatles.”
If the Fab Four had never existed, “I honestly can say I would be a different person,” Axelrod says. “The Beatles helped me through a bad time and they also created a lot of great times for me. I’m not so sure I would have been helped by other music. Theirs was just different.”
Andrew Lubman, 52, a musician and computer technician in Wantagh, N.Y., says he would have gravitated toward music with or without The Beatles, but the band has certainly helped shape his life. Like Axelrod, he had a mother who was a fan, but Lubman rediscovered the Beatles as a clarinet-playing sixth-grader. A copy of the early hits compilation “1962-1966” (aka The Red Album) spurred Lubman to learn the guitar and piano parts.
It was the 1970 album “McCartney,” a one-man-band production from the former Beatle, that gave Lubman the idea for his current project: Note-for-note Beatles covers in which Lubman plays and sings every part.
Lubman is fairly obsessive about it, as viewers can see from the videos at his YouTube channel, AllYouNeedIsLub. In his quest for accuracy and authenticity, he tracked down a Baldwin electric harpsichord for the song “Because,” played three clarinet parts on “When I’m Sixty-Four” and spent several days singing six-part harmony on “Michelle.” Lubman’s covers can sound remarkably close to the originals, which makes him wonder if that’s why YouTube recently removed his version of “Yesterday.”
“It’s a copyright thing,” he says. Even when he wrote to YouTube to say he could prove he performed the song himself, Lubman says, the video was not reinstated.
“There’s no lip-syncing or miming,” he insists. “It’s a labor of love.”
That wide-reaching influence is what makes “Yesterday” such an interesting thought-exercise. According to Boyle, the director, the movie’s conceit couldn’t have worked with any other band.
“If you’re going make something disappear, you’ve got to make it something truly significant,” he says. “These guys literally changed the world.”