In Danny Boyle’s new film Yesterday, a struggling musician named Jack (Himesh Patel) wakes up after being hit by a bus during a 12-second global blackout to discover he is the only person in the world who remembers the Beatles. After a brief will-he-won’t-he, Jack relaunches his failing career to stunning success by claiming the songs of Lennon and McCartney as his own.
But the success isn’t enough for Jack, who was listless and unmoored even before his musical triumph, trying to figure out just where and how he belonged. The film offers a sideways solution, peppering a narrative about rock stardom with scenes in intimate, domestic settings: a conversation with Ed Sheeran (played by none other than Ed Sheeran) in Jack’s parents’ quotidian kitchen, impassioned rehearsals in a cluttered adolescent bedroom, the mundane dreariness of a local grocery store where Jack initially works part-time. All these scenes juxtaposing Jack’s restlessness with images of people who are static and anchored, at home in themselves as much as in their own living rooms, underscore the theme of home going. As Jack’s renditions of globally beloved Beatles classics play, they intermingle with our hero’s journey in discovering just where he ought to be. In Yesterday, the music of the Beatles acts as a guiding light, an auditory pathway toward a semblance of home.
Though Yesterday struggles with an unwieldy, fablelike plot and ultimately neglects an interesting premise for tired rom-com tropes, the idea of the Beatles and their connection to home was something that resonated with me. When I think about my first days in Chicago, and how it became a place where I felt I belonged, the soundtrack that plays is one by John, Paul, George, and Ringo. I realize this seems completely nonsensical; the Beatles were Liverpudlians from across the pond. They heralded the British Invasion of the 1960s with their flippant bowl cuts and wide, shallow vowels. Geographically speaking, there’s no reason for the Beatles to be at all associated with Chicago, though they did perform here in 1964, 1965, and 1966 to a total audience of more than 150,000 people. They counted American artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis as influences, but their sound had no real ties to the Chicago sounds of blues and jazz. New York, with its worldly glamour and direct link to Lennon’s later years, seems a more apt fit. And yet, for me, when I am reminded of all that I love about this City of the Big Shoulders, it is the Beatles that act as chorus.
When my family first moved to the United States in 2000, we landed in a rural, all-white area of Illinois. As a seven-year-old half-Japanese, half-white girl, I had just left the homogeneity of Japan, where I’d been alienated for being mixed race, only to find that the community where we had planted ourselves in the U.S. was similarly monotone, with microaggressions and isolation to match. The first years of my life here were hard ones, marked by anxiety and sorrow spurred by the belief that I was not as human as my white peers. After four years of trying (and failing) to make it work in the all-white cornfields, my parents made the decision to move our family to Albany Park.
Immediately, it was apparent to me that our new home was different. Orthodox Jews in their raven-colored hats threaded the street, sharing sidewalks with Muslims in their hijabs and white taqiyahs. Two Swedish American shops stood side by side on Foster where blond, blue-eyed descendants of earlier immigrants cheerfully ordered open-faced meatball sandwiches dressed in doe-colored gravy. On our block, kids shouted in Spanish as they chased after the paleta man, the bells on his cart a gleeful jangle, so much more inviting than the droning loop of “Turkey in the Straw” played by the ice cream truck. The public library on the corner had a dedicated room for Korean-language books, a room where I would later spend countless hours flipping through thick glossy magazines, each page slick and cool to the touch, marveling at how easily I could now find published photos of Asian women.
At nighttime—at least for the first few awe-filled weeks—my family would pile wordlessly into our silver Honda CRV. In my childish recollection, this memory is touched with magic, as if we are all drawn into the car by some invisible force, my dad in the driver’s seat, my mother in the passenger’s, my sister and I sitting behind them. My dad would turn the key in the ignition, slide a CD into the player, and as the car pulled away from its spot for our nightly drives down Lawrence Avenue, the percussive shoop of “Come Together” would come through the speakers, followed by McCartney’s insistent bass and Lennon’s surrealist lyrics. We would pull onto Lawrence as the moody timbre broke open into the messianic chorus—”Come together, right now, over me”—everyone in the car silent as we glided down the street.
It was summer, and so our windows were rolled down to better see the lit-up signs. Usually, there’d be some traffic, but this suited us as George Harrison’s ethereal “Something” warbled. The point of these Abbey Road car rides was to be enraptured by our jewellike neighborhood. Maxwell’s silver hammer came down as I gawked at the glittering showcase of finery in a display window, the headless mannequins wearing bell-shaped quinceañera dresses. My sister and I would bellow along to “Oh! Darling,” taking care not to close our eyes too long in our fits of emotional singing so as not to miss the cozy glow of diners in the pupuseria. To the rakish piano of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” we marveled at blankets emblazoned with wolf faces spread out for eager shoppers. The pastel enticement of the paleteria accompanied “Polythene Pam,” the stoicism of the river slid past to “Golden Slumbers.” At the end of the night, as we tumbled out of the car, my sister and I would sing “Her Majesty” to each other, alternating lines as my parents turned the key in the lock. The Beatles ushered us night after night into a reverie of gratitude, from the first sounds of Abbey Road to its closing, acting as the hymn for our feverish thankfulness that we now lived in Chicago. (Later I asked my dad why we listened to Abbey Road. It turned out there was no reason at all.)
Those nights are why when I think about this city, the album that plays in the background of my mind is always Abbey Road. It’s why last night when I watched Jack race up a street in Suffolk to record his rendition of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” I was reminded of listening to that song while riding my bicycle up Kedzie in high school, thinking feverishly of the dark-haired boy I so hoped would ask me to dance at the Back to School Dance. Or why when Jack played “In My Life” for a local talk show, I was immediately transported back to my wedding, dancing to the harpsichord solo with my father like lunatics. In some ways, this is just what good music does: it attaches itself to something, someone, some place, some feeling in our lives, and shows us something true. In Yesterday, that music is by the Beatles, and the true thing it eventually shows is where one finds home. For me, it was the same music, but the home it cast a light on was this at times broken, always beautiful saving grace of a city. v