“This is a terrible idea”, was apparently Paul McCartney’s reaction when Richard Curtis pitched him the idea for the film “Yesterday”. Curtis was not the first person to use the songs of a much-loved band as the score to a wildly improbable musical. Ben Elton had done the same to the Queen back-catalogue in London’s West End, just as Phyllida Lloyd and Catherine Johnson had done (with bonus badly singing celebrities) in Mama Mia; using the hits of ABBA. Curtis is an astute salesman, and so of course, his jukebox musical was to feature the music of biggest band of all time: The Beatles.
The plot [spoiler alert!] is as bonkers as it is implausible, as non-sensical as it is fun. And this film is an awful lot of fun. Curtis, along with director Danny Boyle’s, interaction with the restrictions of reality are playful and endearing. While the physical plot, in which a global power-outage selectively wipes certain memories from humanity is full-on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ territory, the human interactions and emotions are relentlessly real. And that’s why the film works, it invokes friendship, loyalty, romance, dreams, hopes, fears, success, failure, love, sex and marriage. It’s a vintage Curtis rom-com!
Himesh Patel stars as Jack Malik, a small-town singer-songwriter whose career is going nowhere. The only person who thinks he can make it, is his ever-loyal friend and manager Ellie (Lily James). What’s obvious to the audience, but not Jack, is that his songs will never be hits, and that Ellie is in love with him. That is until one day when Jack wakes up in hospital after a bike accident to find that he is the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles. No one in the whole world, it seems, has ever heard of John, Paul, George or Ringo; She Loves You, Help!, Strawberry Fields Forever, Penny Lane or Hey Jude.
The plot first thickens and then unravels. Malik starts to perform Beatles songs, and to pass them off as his own. Before long, he has said goodbye to gigging to single figure crowds in Norfolk pubs, and is on tour with Ed Sheeran. He becomes a global star, negotiating with nauseously toxic and grasping music industry bosses whose distaste for art is only dwarfed by their love of money.
The story is more complex though. The dilemma that Malik experiences is that although the world hails him as a musical genius, a pop-song writing one-man hit machine; inside he knows he’s a fraud. When he passes off Hey Jude (amusingly and naffly rendered ‘Hey Dude’ by Ed Sheeran), or beats Sheeran in a songwriting competition by claiming authorship of The Long and Winding Road; the plaudits mount. However, the further up the ladder he moves, the further from truth he finds himself – and the further from the one person who actually loves him he becomes. He jets round the world, while Ellie remains in Norfolk, she’s a primary school teacher with a parents’ night to attend.
So here, in the figure of Jack Malik, Curtis and Boyle give us a character enduring the most intense ‘imposter syndrome’ of all time. He wakes up in cold sweats, dreading being found out. He dreams he’s on James Corden’s chat show and Paul and Ringo appear claiming the songs back! He loves the adulation, the hits, the stardom, the screaming girls of Malik-mania, and the feeling of importance but dreads being found out for who he really is.
This taps in to something very profound within most of us. Psychologists say that one of the most common dreams people experience is of being naked in public – the fruit of a slumbering imagination let run riot with feelings of not fitting in, or being found out. Sometime such feelings are without foundation. I remember reading of a brilliant young scientist who, despite her glittering academic career, felt like an ill-qualified imposter in her lab. Or a hugely impressive student who (despite being a serial over-achiever) dreaded being found out as the failure she perceived herself to be, and getting thrown out of university for poor marks.
Yet often these feelings of being an imposter are based on things not imagined, but very real. We may not find ourselves standing in front of tens of thousands of people passing off other people’s work as our own. We may have written our own theses (or film reviews!) and not indulged in Jack Malik scale acts of plagiarism. Nevertheless, many people live with a dread of being found out for who they really are – what they have actually done.
Social media, in all its many forms has exacerbated this phenomenon. Not only do people now need to present themselves as good-looking, interesting and smart from nine-to-five, but must also compete in the best life stakes, alongside the carefully curated narratives of any number of online ‘friends’, and ‘followers’. I remember speaking to one man, who was inconsolably miserable – but whose social media profile looked for all the world as if he was living the dream. All the while he believed everyone else’s online narratives as literal truth, and dreaded being found out for being the fraud he was.
And to a lesser or greater extent we all do it. We speak about the things we are proud of, and hide the things of which we are ashamed. We present a version of ourselves to the world, which is often little more than an aspiration of the kind of person we wish we truly were. All the while we keep people at a distance, fearing that if they found out who we really are, they would reject us. The result is the crisis of loneliness our culture inhabits, in which profound relationships in the real world require a vulnerability that is easier to avoid, but the stylised and manicured online relationships we prefer do not satisfy. The human ego proves to be balloon-like, and the more puffed-up we get – the more we dread it bursting.
So Jack Malik – the plagiarist in chief – faces a dilemma. In front of him are the crowds, the adulation and the glorious lie. Somewhere off stage stands Ellie Appleton, the beautiful, loyal, wonderful girl who loves the real Jack, who was there in the empty festivals in the rain, the pub-gigs that no-one came to and who knows the songs the Jack actually did write, and which no-one cares about. In front of Jack is the lie, the money, the fame and the fraud. To the side, is Ellie – who represents grace, because she both knows and loves the ‘real Jack’.
Richard Curtis has built his career on knowing how to tug the heart strings of his audience. From Blackadder’s final charge in WWI, to William Thacker walking through a snowy Notting Hill to the strains of Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone; Curtis isn’t even subtle in the way he cheerfully plays with his audiences sympathies. It’s no different here. We all know that there are elements of our lives which are a bit dodgy, things in our minds, phones and accounts which we would not want broadcast in front of the crowd – or displayed on social media. There are cruel ways we have spoken to those we love most, which if recorded and shared online would make us die a thousand deaths. There are things we deliberately conceal, yet, we also know that unless we are truly known, we are always terribly, terribly alone.
So Jack Malik makes a choice. Deciding that he cannot cope with living the lie, he confesses, not just to Ellie, and the management of his record label; but to the whole world – live on stage. Confession opens the door to embracing Ellie (actually to marriage, kids and Oblha-di, Oblha-da), the one person who knew and loved the real Jack. The film comes to its happy ending with Jack and Ellie in a relationship built on grace, not on his performance. And this is the one place in which he finds himself freed from Imposter syndrome. At home with Ellie, Jack knows he truly belongs in a way he never did in the record company offices, and in the executive jets.
Richard Curtis and co, seem to perfectly understand one of the core dilemmas in the human condition – that we need to be simultaneously fully known, and fully loved and accepted. This resonates very deeply with us all. Their proposed solution to this problem is romance, that we find the perfect mate, and become complete. It is unrelentingly romantic, soppy and makes Yesterday not merely a quirky fantasy, but a vintage feelgood rom-com.
The problem of course is that if we look to romance, even to the covenantal romance of marriage, to fully meet these deep and profound needs we will be disappointed. The need to be totally accepted while being fully known, is profound – but it might be an overwhelming burden if placed on the shoulders of another human being. Who has the infinite resources of grace to fully and completely love another, when all their faults are revealed? Equally, who can allow their innermost recesses to be exposed when the contents are unpalatable even to oneself? Curtis can make us feel good, with his rom-com view of the world, but he also sets us up for bitter disappointment if we take him too seriously.
The good news though, is that even if one human being can never give us all the grace we need – this is precisely what God offers us. The wonder of the message of Christ is that God already fully knows us (every fault, every thought, every motive, deed and word) and yet despite that does not recoil from us in horror; but choses to embrace us completely. To walk with Him is to be fully and completely known, and yet fully and completely accepted. There is no imposter syndrome in God’s kingdom because the whole basis of membership is that we receive his grace, which we don’t deserve. And yet we don’t stumble into it by accident. Jack Malik in Yesterday has to opt out of the lie, confess his dreadful plagiarism and choose Ellie. This is a neat analogy of what God calls us to do. Stop living the lie, stop pretending to be something we are not, stop covering up our faults and instead confess them to him; casting ourselves upon his immeasurable grace. Because it is there that we find our true home, where we really belong. Only God can simultaneously fully know us and yet fully love us like this. The rom-com world of Richard Curtis and Yesterday is cute, but it overburdens human romance with a promise that only God can fulfil.