A strange take on plagiarism in “Yesterday”

The new romantic comedy offers two musical superstars — but only Ed Sheeran is a real-life plagiarist

There’s a lot to like in “Yesterday,” the new film directed by Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis, although mere likability may be its greatest saving grace. The cast is likable. The tone is quiet. And, of course, the music is some of the greatest around. It seems carefully crafted to avoid offense, and yet that blank quality, while perfect for summer escape, is also problematic.

Himesh Patel in “Yesterday”

The high concept premise is this: a strange, world-wide blip means that almost no one remembers The Beatles. Jack, the hero of the story, is suddenly faced with a moral dilemma: should he pass the song catalog off as his own or rob the world of ever knowing their pleasures? Rather than struggling with this question, the film takes Jack on another path: the problems and complications of fame. Will he forget his roots, his family and his friends, including volunteer manager/fan Lily James?

In the midst of all this, it is hard to know what to make of the film’s conduit to fame: Ed Sheeran, as himself. Sheeran, in real life, is both incredibly successful and a prolific plagiarist. He’s taken the work of Marvin Gaye, TLC and Kandi Burruss, and Cheryl Cole, resulting in some of his biggest hits, a few lawsuits and a revision of songwriting credits and royalties. When he discovers Jack and launches him into a global sensation with the help his manager Kate McKinnon, one has to ponder whether the real Sheeran might also live in a world in which he’s magically unable to recognize the work of classic pop and R&B stars. And when the movie’s Sheeran reveals his own ringtone is “The Shape of You,” the same song he ripped off of TLC and others, I couldn’t tell if he (or anyone) is in on the joke. It was the one moment in the film that made me laugh out loud.

Ed Sheeran advises that “Hey, Dude” works much better than “Hey, Jude”

From there, the film follows the traditional narrative of a small-town guy being groomed to greatness, and loosing everything about himself along the way. There are diets and stylists and marketing meetings and photoshoots, all of which would be soul-sucking even if the work he was presenting was actually his own. Is this how the Beatles would be marketed today? Would they even be discovered? (And what about Oasis? They and “Wonderwall” have been erased from existance as well.).

Fortunately, “Yesterday” has a bit more up its sleeve. There’s some fun to be had as Jack struggles to “write” the Beatles tunes from memory, forgetting lyrics and order and proving that songcraft is a challenging art even when you are following the greatest blueprint in the world. He also meets two others who share the secret of the Beatles, and together they revel in their shared knowledge, like superfans of an obscure local band. There’s another twist toward the end of the film that is so unexpected, and so daring, that it literally took my breath away. But I’m not going to spoil that here, because when was the last time any of us experienced something breathtaking at the movies?

Author of fiction and non-fiction; dog guy; bad boxer. New book, City of Dogs, is just out now from Avery/Penguin.

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