The Beatles wrote many of the greatest songs of all time, and they also wrote a lot of the greatest movie songs. To know that, all you have to do is see the title sequence of “A Hard Day’s Night,” which electrifies you from its opening THRUM!!!, or (in the same film) the Beatles blasting the sonic bliss of “I Should Have Known Better” from inside a train storage compartment, or the sublime melting psychedelia of the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” flying-damsel fantasia from “Yellow Submarine,” or Paul gazing into the camera as he delivers the hymn-like rapture of the title song from “Let It Be.” The Beatles showed you, over and over, what a pop musical movie sequence could be, and that’s why you can go back to those movies — those scenes — again and again.
“Yesterday,” a wide-eyed musical fairy tale written by Richard Curtis (“Notting Hill,” “Love Actually”) and directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), is a movie that wants to celebrate the magic of the Beatles. Yet there isn’t a scene in it that gives you that same kind of high. Granted, we aren’t watching the Beatles! We’re seeing a kind of pop-culture what-if? joke, all revolving around the modest figure of Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), an appealing if painfully earnest 27-year-old Indian-British singer-songwriter who can barely get a dozen people to show up for his gig at a music festival.
One night, a cosmic freak accident takes place — a blackout all over the world. It lasts for 12 seconds, but during that time Jack gets hit by a bus, which conks him right out. He wakes up with a gap where two of his front teeth should be, but that’s far from the biggest change in his life. When he’s handed a new guitar as a recovery gift, Jack christens the instrument by serenading a handful of friends with his rendition of the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” and the friends can scarcely believe what a beautiful song it is. That’s because they’ve never heard it before.
The blackout, you see, replaced the world as we know it with one in which the Beatles never existed. That puts Jack in the position of being the only person on Earth who knows the group’s songs. (It’s a good thing that bus didn’t kill him.) He figures this out by Googling “the Beatles” (all that comes up is beetles) and then the title of “Sgt. Pepper” (all that comes up is red peppers). Is it any wonder that as he starts to go out and perform the music of the Beatles, everyone who hears the songs falls in love with them? Before long, Jack is the hottest thing in music.
“Yesterday” milks most of this for light comedy. After Jack sings “Yesterday,” one of his friends comments that it’s a “nice” song, and Jack, incensed at the understatement, declares, “It’s one of the greatest songs ever written!” But considering that everyone there thinks he wrote it, it just sounds like his ego has gone off the charts, and one friend tries to put Jack in his place (and the song, too) by saying, “It’s not Coldplay.”
The cute gags don’t stop there. Jack sits down at the piano in his parents’ living room and tries to play “Let It Be” for them, but each time he gets rolling they insist on interrupting him, which leaves him beyond exasperated. He says, “It’s as if Da Vinci was painting the Mona Lisa in front of your bloody eyes!” And after he goes on a local talk show and sings “In My Life,” he gets a call, out of the blue, from Ed Sheeran (who plays himself in the movie). Ed is knocked out by what a great songwriter Jack is, and invites him to open up for him on tour. But Ed, who’s like a sexy Muppet, has an ego as well. Even though he’s the one who sought Jack out, he senses a rival and challenges him, on the spot, to a 10-minute songwriting competition.
Ed comes back with a terrific song: catchy, soulful, seamlessly melodic. Jack, however, comes back with “The Long and Winding Road,” which leaves Ed and everyone around him spellbound. (Though what isn’t clear is why Jack changes some of the chords; he actually makes them mellower.) Ed tells Jack: Okay, you really are better than me! And we chuckle — because it’s an amusing gag, if a rather coy, goofy one. We also chuckle (a bit) when Ed suggests that Jack change the title of “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.”
In “Yesterday,” the greatness of the Beatles is like a trump card that Jack, and the filmmakers, keep playing. Yet the greatness of the Beatles is never something the film invites us to discover. The songs, to be fair, are iconic — but that said, some Beatles songs are more iconic than others. And “Yesterday” features nothing but the Beatles tracks that you would put on a “12 All-Time Greatest Songs of the Beatles!” collection. It’s not even so much that the song selection is famous-to-a-fault but that the movie treats the songs as official facts of beauty, rather than as melodies that could strike us with the freshness they’re supposed to be hitting this suddenly un-Beatle-ized world with.
The songs flash by quickly: Jack doing “Back in the U.S.S.R.” in concert (which inspires the crowd to a frat-house chorus of Woo-woo-ooos!), Jack in the recording studio performing an amped-up montage of tracks from “Meet the Beatles,” Jack turning “Help!” into a speedy punk anthem, Jack’s running attempt to piece together the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby.” But there’s never a moment in “Yesterday” when a Beatles song does what almost any Beatles song can do — takes us on a journey, so that by the time the song ends our spirits are in a radically different place. The fact that there’s hardly a song choice that comes at us from a realm of idiosyncratic beauty (why not “Lovely Rita” or “You Won’t See Me” or “Dig a Pony” or “Martha My Dear”?) is connected to how the filmmakers reduce the Beatles to a kind of karaoke kitsch epiphany. In “Yesterday,” there’s no mystery to these songs. The whole joke is what cosmically known quantities they are.
Speaking of known quantities, Jack, as a failed indie rocker, has been friends with his manager, a schoolteacher named Ellie (Lily James), since they were kids, but the two of them somehow slipped past the love zone. And that’s the film’s slender romantic-comedy plot: watching them try and unhook their platonic friendship. Patel and James look like they belong together, but there’s not much conflict or tension there; their bond is sweetness in search of fire.
“Yesterday” skates along on the musical and emotional surface of the Beatles’ incandescence, and the reason for that, I think, is that the movie isn’t truly about the world discovering the Beatles. If it were, Curtis and Boyle would have worked out a way to show us how the world minus the Beatles was a more barren place. But in “Yesterday,” a world without the Beatles doesn’t look any different, so there’s little potency to the film’s fantasy of the Beatles coming back. At heart, the movie is a fantasy of rebooting the Beatles — of imagining that if their music came at us now, for the first time, it would be, in a word, yuge.
That’s certainly the fantasy pushed by Debra (Kate McKinnon), Ed Sheeran’s (fictional) manager, who agrees to manage Jack and comes up with a master plan to launch his brilliant songs into the world. First, they’ll distribute five tracks online. Then, with everyone’s appetite whetted, they’ll put out the greatest double album of all time. They will also, by then, have figured out how to give Jack a makeover, since one of the film’s running gags is that Debra thinks he’s a totally pathetic loser-schlub. Kate McKinnon pushes her postmodern sarcasm to the wall — in “Yesterday,” she’s the acid-tongued incarnation of music-industry corruption.
Yet beneath it all, there isn’t much difference between what Debra does and what Boyle and Curtis are doing. They’re selling the Beatles all over again. In “Yesterday,” they reduce the Beatles to the ultimate product by declaring, at every turn, “These songs are transcendent!” And it’s the fact that they keep telling us, rather than showing us (i.e., with musical sequences that earned their transcendence), that makes “Yesterday,” for all the timeless songs in it, a cut-and-dried, rotely whimsical, prefab experience. The movie is a rom-com wallpapered with the Beatles’ greatness.