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‘Yesterday’ and the Silent Hell of Imposter Syndrome

Lots of talented people secretly wonder if they’re frauds. The nightmare for this movie’s main character is that he knows for a fact that he is.

No matter how successful you are, you never outrun imposter syndrome — that sinking feeling that you’re just a fraud and that, eventually, the world will find out. It’s a condition that afflicts everyone, even geniuses. “Part of me suspects I’m a loser,” John Lennon once said, “and part of me thinks I’m God Almighty.” His former bandmate Paul McCartney has long held onto a similar insecurity, admitting in 2015, “I never really felt like, ‘Oh, I did good.’ Nobody does.” If the Beatles faced such doubts, what hope do the rest of us have of licking the problem?

The new comedy Yesterday takes off from a cute, clever premise, but its implications are much darker — and more interesting — than the movie chooses to explore. This story, about an aspiring songwriter who wakes up one morning to discover that he’s the only person who remembers the Fab Four, sounds like the dream scenario of so many wannabe musicians: If I could pawn off the Beatles’ hits as my own, I’d be a superstar. But for Yesterday’s unlikely hero, this fluke turns out only to reveal something depressing about himself: Deep down, maybe he never was that talented. His fate is to suffer from history’s worst case of imposter syndrome.

The movie, directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and written by Richard Curtis (Love, Actually), is constructed like the most ironic rock biopic of all time. We’re used to this genre’s narrative structures: Our hero is initially a nobody, inspiration hits, he comes up with some hit songs, he gets insanely famous, he lets fame go to his head, he hits rock bottom, and then the film ends on a hopeful, redemptive note. That’s sorta what happens in Yesterday… except for the crucial part where struggling nice-guy musician Jack (Himesh Patel) gets inspired and writes some transcendent songs. Jack bypasses all that hard work — instead, Earth suffers a freak power outage, a bus hits him, and then he wakes up in the hospital to learn that no one has any idea who the Beatles are. Yesterday, he was just a regular schlub singing his earnest originals in front of crowds of about a dozen. Today, he can be the man who brings the world a fleet of indelible songs, which he can claim as his own.

It’s not much surprise that Jack’s unexpected musical goldmine ends up being a lot more complicated than he anticipated, resulting in all types of unpredictable consequences. For one thing, his long-suffering but loyal manager Ellie (Lily James) finally acknowledges that she’s always had a crush on him — a feeling he was too timid to express himself — but now he’s too in-demand for them to have time together. However, the ripple effects are also existential: Jack’s growing stardom only increasingly gnaws at him since he’s not deserving of the accolades. When people ask him what motivated the writing of, say, “Hey Jude,” he’s forced to regurgitate the real story as if it happened to him. But he knows it didn’t — and the loneliness of that knowledge is, somehow, more crushing. He’ll never be caught in his lie, but that only makes his guilt worse. He can’t even come clean that he’s a fraud — who would believe him when no one has a memory of John, Paul, George and Ringo?

Yesterday isn’t sharp enough to let that irony really draw blood. But the movie does deftly articulate what imposter syndrome feels like when it’s just you and your warped brain having a conversation about how undeserving you are of being recognized for your gifts. To the outside world, you’re someone with talent who has something meaningful to share with the rest of society. But you don’t see it that way — you only feel the ceaseless doubts and raging self-loathing. For a moment, Jack seems to have sidestepped those insecurities thanks to a cosmic anomaly, but they soon come back to haunt him in a cruelly novel way that no one on Earth has ever experienced.

Steven Spielberg, by any metric a massively successful director, once quoted his filmmaking mentor Henry Hathaway about imposter syndrome. This is what Hathaway told him: “There are going to be moments, where you get to set, and you are not going to know what the hell you’re doing. It happens to all of us; you’ve got to guard that secret with your life. Let no one see when you’re unsure of yourself … or you lose the respect of everyone.” Most of us have had to adopt that fake-it-till-you-make-it mindset on occasion, bluffing confidence when we’re actually a bundle of nerves and inexperience, but in Yesterday, Jack’s weird tragedy is that he has no choice but to keep his secret to himself. And in the process, that secret eats him up. He’s a global sensation because of the Beatles songs, but like a lot of talented people, he just thinks of himself as a charlatan. Unlike other talented people, though, he’s 100 percent right in his assessment.

I won’t spoil how Yesterday plays out but, as you can probably guess, things don’t get incredibly bleak. This is a feel-good love story through and through, with the Beatles’ transcendently optimistic songs guiding our path. And yet, the movie does let some melancholy linger, unresolved. In one incredible moment, Jack goes to visit “John Lennon,” who looks like our John Lennon except he didn’t write all those hits. (Also, he’s still alive.) Most rock biopics take it as a given that their subject was destined for greatness, born with an ability to craft unforgettable melodies. But in Yesterday, the notion of talent is far more mysterious. For lots of people without an artistic bone in their body, that’s how creativity feels. It’s certainly how I am around anyone who can draw or do standup comedy. As far as I’m concerned, it might as well be magic.

But that’s the thing about talent: It’s actually not magic. Yes, you need some sort of natural ability, but the rest of it is work and luck and timing. Some of that you can control, some you can’t. Jack was seemingly destined to be one of those guys for whom things weren’t meant to work out. Sweet kid, but he didn’t have the goods creatively. Waking up in a parallel reality without the Beatles didn’t suddenly make him more talented — he was just lucky. But his curse is to know he’s an imposter. In a way, though, maybe he’s luckier than the rest of us. We’re doomed to live out the rest of our days never quite being sure if we’re frauds. At least Jack has the cold comfort of certainty.

Here are three other takeaways from Yesterday.

#1. It’s expensive to put Beatles songs into your movie.

When a filmmaker wants to include an existing song in her movie, she has to pay a license fee for that right. And if you’re hoping to have a Beatles track underscore an emotional scene, you’d better have deep pockets: The Fab Four’s music doesn’t come cheap.

Reportedly, Yesterday has a budget of about $26 million, which is low by studio standards, but the rumor is that $10 million of that was for licensing Beatles songs. Last week, Billboard mentioned the $10-million figure in a piece that claims that the producers licensed a record 17 Beatles tunes for the romantic comedy. The Beatles’ publishing company, Sony/ATV, wouldn’t confirm that dollar amount, but president and global chief marketing officer Brian Monaco told the music trade publication, “[W]e never discount the Beatles ever.”

The whole article, written by Melinda Newman, is worth a read because it gets into the nitty-gritty of how the company makes decisions about where to license the Beatles’ songs. (Sony/ATV also handles the Queen catalog, which got a huge bump after last year’s Oscar-winning Bohemian Rhapsody.) But the bottom line is that it’s not just about money — the Beatles brain trust is pretty selective about when to allow movies and programs to have this legendary music. When a 2012 Mad Men episode licensed “Tomorrow Never Knows,” reportedly for about $250,000, it was the first time in years that an original Beatles tune had been used on a television show.

If you’re looking to rock the Beatles in your movie, it helps to have an inside connection. The low-budget 2013 documentary Good Ol’ Freda managed to land four Fab Four tracks. How did director Ryan White pull off that feat? The movie was about Freda Kelly, the band’s loyal secretary. “She was their longest serving employee,” White said at the time. “She’s had countless offers to do a tell-all book or movie. She’s still a working secretary today in Liverpool and makes a secretary’s wage. She never sold them out. … When I went to Apple Corps, they said how many songs do you want?”

For the rest of us, though, we’ll have to pay through the teeth. And by the way, that supposed $250,000 that Mad Men paid for “Tomorrow Never Knows” is nothing. Word is that for his final Tonight Show, Conan O’Brien may have spent $500,000 for 10 seconds of “Lovely Rita.” Don’t break down that dollar amount per second — it’ll only make you cry. Or wish you had any songwriting talent at all.

#2. Never forget that Steve Martin sang “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” in a major motion picture.

Most people can agree on the best Beatles movie: It’s 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night, which captured the mop tops in all their early glory. But what’s the worst? That’s up for debate. In terms of their own projects, the disastrous Magical Mystery Tour film is widely regarded as pretentious, meandering nonsense, although the songs sure are great. And then you have films about the Beatles, like the 2007 romantic drama Across the Universe, in which young lovers Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood have their story told through Fab Four songs. The film got dismissive reviews, and Yesterday has been similarly smacked with mixed notices.

But never forget 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a calamitous jukebox musical about a band trying to navigate the terrors of the music business. It starred everybody from the Bee Gees to George Burns, and it got terrible reviews. (The New York Times’ Janet Maslin huffed, “This isn’t a movie, it’s a business deal set to music.”) But it did provide the world the rare opportunity to see Steve Martin, probably the planet’s biggest standup comic at the time, try his hand at the Abbey Road track “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”:

Just think for a moment how many drugs were involved in the making of this sequence.

The stench of that film’s failure is still potent years later. Somewhat recently, I was interviewing a person who was involved with the making of the Sgt. Pepper’s movie. That wasn’t why we were talking, but as an icebreaker I mentioned that it was a film my wife had a nostalgic fondness for because she loved it as a kid. The guy looked at me like I was crazy and said nothing. I quickly moved on to another subject. Apparently, the first rule of working on Sgt. Pepper’s is that you never, ever want to talk about it again.

#3. Want to watch a better film about a struggling singer-songwriter? Try Inside Llewyn Davis.

Understandably, lots of music movies are about famous artists, but I find myself drawn to ones about guys we’ve never heard of — the ones who, like Jack in Yesterday, are struggling to get their big break. Listen, some dreams never come true — shouldn’t the losers get films, too?

My favorite example of this is 2013’s magnificent Inside Llewyn Davis, which starred Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, a folk singer in New York in the early 1960s. He’s hovering around the margins of the city’s folk revival, and he and his former partner tasted a little success, but now he’s wondering if he’s ever going to make it to the next level. He’s got potential, he’s got the drive, and he’s got the artistry. Why aren’t things working out for him?

Inside Llewyn Davis was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, who keep us feeling uncertain about how we’re supposed to feel about Llewyn. On the one hand, he’s a bitter bastard, but on the other, he’s a soulful performer who pours himself into his emotional songs. And because he’s played by Isaac, he’s also charming, magnetic and handsome. Nevertheless, Inside Llewyn Davis is a consistently frustrating, heartbreaking experience as Llewyn stumbles from one miscue to another, getting close to establishing a career and then being beset by another round of bad luck. Llewyn is far from perfect, but he doesn’t deserve the misfortune that comes his way.

If you haven’t seen the film, I don’t want to reveal its twists — or its cruel final reveal, which says so much about the importance of timing for any artist — but suffice it to say that I think this is the most profound movie ever made about the mysteries of “making it.” Ironically, Inside Llewyn Davis helped propel Isaac, who was at that point a respected but little-known character actor, to stardom. Soon, he’d be part of the recent Star Wars trilogy and anointed one of the internet’s boyfriends. Llewyn Davis may not ever make it, but the guy who played him sure did.