How does a great piece of popular music come into being? The movies have never been especially good at answering that question, though lately there have been significant efforts to prove otherwise. Last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” gave us a predictable, crowd-pleasing number in which Queen foot-stomps its way through “We Will Rock You” for the first time. “Rocketman” dreamed up a scene of a lovesick Elton John sitting down at his piano and breathing “Your Song” into existence.
The latest and most fanciful of these rock ’n’ roll origin stories can be found in “Yesterday,” a thinly imagined comic fantasy in which people are continually asking about the inspiration behind the Beatles’ songs, from “Hey Jude” to “The Long and Winding Road” to “Eleanor Rigby” and all the rest. The twist is that these questions are directed not at John, Paul, George and Ringo but at Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, “EastEnders”), a young English singer-songwriter who becomes the unlikely beneficiary of the Beatles’ entire catalog and whose creative process consists entirely of scribbling down half-remembered lyrics on Post-It notes.
Let’s back up a bit. Jack is riding his bike home one night when a mysterious power outage strikes, coinciding with the moment when he gets hit by a bus and knocked unconscious. He recovers, but as he realizes soon after strumming “Yesterday” on his guitar and leaving his friends awestruck at his songwriting skills, the world has irrevocably changed. The Beatles never existed, apparently, and he seems to be the only person who can remember, let alone perform, any of their music.
It’s a dream scenario that sets him up to be, well, bigger than Jesus. And it yields a few choice comic morsels early on, like the scene in which Jack tries to sing “Let It Be” for his mom and dad (Meera Syal and Sanjeev Bhaskar), who prove distracted and unimpressed in the way that only loving parents can. There’s a fun running gag built around Jack’s frequent Google searches, which reveal that the Beatles aren’t the only global phenomenon that’s been scrubbed from the history books. (This is a world with Pepsi but no Coca-Cola, which frankly qualifies “Yesterday” as a horror movie in my book.)
Directed more staidly than usual by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Steve Jobs”) from a script by Richard Curtis, “Yesterday” never attempts to supply a rational explanation — how could it? — for these bizarre acts of pop-cultural erasure. It invites you to shrug your shoulders and surrender to the genial what-if absurdity of its premise: What if Jack sang “In My Life” on TV and caught the attention of Ed Sheeran (who turns up in an extended cameo)? What if Jack blew up overnight and moved to L.A. to record his version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” then decided he had to visit Liverpool with his bumbling buddy Rocky (Joel Fry) for extra inspiration?
What if all this ultimately feels like window-dressing for a movie with a gaping hole where its soul should be? To be clear, a story need not be realistic or even halfway plausible to earn your suspension of disbelief. What it does need is a certain imaginative integrity, a measure of conceptual rigor. You should come away feeling, at the very least, that the filmmakers have given their conceit the benefit of their full consideration. And on that level, “Yesterday” is almost impressive in its bad faith, its misjudgment of its own premise and its cheap, mercenary attitude toward some of the greatest rock songs ever written.
For a story ostensibly designed as a tribute to the Beatles’ canon, it’s strange how patchily the songs are presented. Not by Jack, who sings them well indeed but by the movie itself, which stages them so interchangeably and chops them up into such truncated, perfunctory bits, that you wonder how they could captivate a newcomer, let alone the entire world, in their present form. A picture to make Julie Taymor’s overblown “Across the Universe” look like a masterpiece of jukebox cinema in retrospect, “Yesterday” leans so heavily on our affection for the Beatles’ music that it never allows that music to live, breathe and seduce us anew.
Like a lot of ostensibly feel-good musicals, it tries to pass off its own laziness as a whimsical lightness of spirit — which means, of course, that any resistance to its meager charms will likely be chalked up to the viewer’s chronic uptightness or an underdeveloped capacity for joy. But it is hard to blame the audience for a movie that keeps daring us to envision a richer, funnier, more intelligent and imaginative version of it at every turn.
The metaphysical possibilities that might have been addressed are admittedly endless: How does popular music even exist as we know it if its greatest, most influential pillar is removed? Wouldn’t some kind of Beatles butterfly effect kick in, beyond the fact that Oasis no longer exists? How would “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “I Saw Her Standing There” even be received by the public in 2019? Would they be seen as gloriously out of step with prevailing trends in rock, pop and other genres, or would it be possible to tease out their points of connection, their shared artistic lineage?
The movie doesn’t seem interested in these hypotheticals. It provides clear answers only where Jack is concerned, and although Patel is an engaging presence and a talented musician, he is shackled here by a character who exists primarily to advance the smug, underexamined moral logic of the Richard Curtis rom-com universe. Not unlike the time-traveling hero of “About Time,” Jack will ruthlessly exploit a supernatural gift for personal gain, only to realize (cue “All You Need Is Love”) that it all means nothing if he doesn’t have the right woman to share it with.
The right woman, which is obvious to everyone but Jack, is Ellie (Lily James, solid in a thankless role), his longtime best friend and most tireless champion. Their feelings for each other are a tediously familiar tangle of repression and confusion, the kind that can only be sorted out with an almost-one-night stand and a mad dash to the train station. And when all else fails, there’s always that hoary old canard about how incompatible celebrities are with the working-class nobodies they have the misfortune to fall in love with, a development that positions us closer to Notting Hill than Abbey Road.
What else? There is one offensive climactic twist that has been shamelessly rigged to ambush your tear ducts. There’s also a pretty funny joke about Coldplay, and some especially good ones at the expense of Sheeran, who is terrifically sly and self-effacing in what emerges as the movie’s strongest performance. He plays two conflicting modes — frustration that he’s being surpassed, and genuine joy that this music is now out in the world — with a nuanced honesty the rest of the movie never approaches.
If Sheeran is a model for how to embrace success without losing your soul, Jack’s agent, an industry viper named Debra (an amusing Kate McKinnon), is on hand to disabuse him of the notion that the soul even exists. Before taking Jack on, she fixes him with a coolly appraising smirk and tells him that he is going to be very, very rich. She doesn’t care who he is, what his music means or where it came from; all that matters is that it’s a gold mine. She speaks more clearly for this movie than she realizes.