Imagine there’s no Beatles.
It’s easy if you try — even easier if you see “Yesterday,” a flight of pop culture fancy from “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” screenwriter Richard Curtis, premiering May 5 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and opening in the U.S. on June 28.
As the film’s trailer has telegraphed, “Yesterday” posits a world without the Fab Four, without Beatlemania and, most disconcertingly, without “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Revolution,” “Let It Be,” “Something” or “The Long and Winding Road.”
At least, the world appears to spin for a time minus this celebrated body of music after the movie’s central character — struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (played by Himesh Patel) — gets walloped by a bus while riding his bike through the streets of small-town England, just as all power mysteriously, momentarily, goes out around the globe.
When he comes to and casually drops a reference to the Beatles, the response from his circle of millennial friends is unanimous: “Who?”
What follows, far from a one-joke exercise, is a consistently winsome and unexpectedly rich artistic and social exploration from Boyle and Curtis, who spent a couple of years cobbling their fascinating fable together, one that includes sizable comic assists from actress Kate McKinnon as a merciless talent agent, and bona fide pop superstar Ed Sheeran as himself.
“It’s such a brilliant idea — I can’t believe it’s not been done before,” Boyle told The Times on the same day Patel was about to step on stage in Las Vegas at the exhibition conference CinemaCon and sing some of the Beatles classics he delivers in the movie.
But in the world of the film, Jack seems to be the only person on the planet who knows those songs and listeners react with the astonishment of hearing them for the first time. That instantly gives an unassuming — and, truth be told, not terribly gifted — young musician access to a repository of the greatest songs the world has never known.
In the process, “Yesterday” gently explores the mystery of musical inspiration, what constitutes fraud, the inevitability of certain artistic expressions and the ability of love to find its way by hook or crook.
Jack soon begins wrestling with feelings that he himself is a crook, getting away with artistic theft in a world that’s gone “Twilight Zone” sideways — not an entirely fictional scenario.
“It’s like what Paul has said about [the song] ‘Yesterday’: he just woke up and played it, and for a long time he was certain he had stolen it because it came to him so fully formed, and seemed so familiar,” Boyle said. “He didn’t know how it arrived, but it is one of the world’s most perfect songs. We still don’t understand these things. Maybe it will all be revealed one day; maybe it won’t.”
Boyle and Curtis, both 62, grew up in the era of Beatlemania and make no secret of their lifelong love affairs with the group’s music, which made their work on “Yesterday” feel especially personal to both.
Curtis recounted living with his family in Sweden when the Beatles were on tour. “I stood outside their hotel for three days hoping they’d come out on the balcony,” he said in a separate interview. “It didn’t occur to us you could buy a ticket” and see them in concert.
“I also remember a time when I was young and away at boarding school: I sat on a radiator for two hours between 4 and 6 in the morning, so that when the matron came in, my temperature was so high she sent me to the sanatorium. I did it because [England’s] Radio 1 was going to play the White Album for the first time that day and I wanted out of school.”
Among the film’s charms is the way it lets movie audiences watch vicariously as on-screen characters discover the wonders of Beatle music. The obvious affection that Boyle, Curtis and the cast channel for all that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr created over the decades is leavened with some of the same incisive wit the Beatles also embodied.
Without giving too much away, it’s also a relief to report that the conundrum of a world without Beatles is not resolved with Jack awakening from a dream, or getting hit by a second bus. Instead, there are other unanticipated ripple effects of the altered timeline.
The film pokes fun in smart ways at record-industry cluelessness and rituals of music fandom, i.e., a couple that holds aloft a sign for “Summer Song,” the title of one of Malik’s dubious original compositions, in the midst of a throng of other fans singing along at the tops of their lungs while Jack powers out a punked-up version of “Help!”
“The way Himesh speaks to us throughout in these songs, it’s very pure and truthful and direct,” Boyle said. “There’s no agenda at all, and to be able to do that with such a mystical totem of Beatles music — it’s not karaoke, there’s no ax to grind — it’s like pure spring water.”
There’s also a sweet story of unrequited love at the heart of the movie between Jack and Ellie (played by Lily James), the young woman who serves as his manager early on because she’s the one person in the world who believes unequivocally in his innate talent — and him.
That part of the story links “Yesterday” to Curtis’ previous scripts for such standout English romantic comedies as “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” while he also brings to bear the razor-sharp comic writing that has infused his work with Rowan Atkinson on his “Mr. Bean” TV series and two feature films.
“I love Richard’s work,” Boyle said. “Some people find that very surprising when I say I consider him to be our poet laureate of romance and comedy. In England the job of Poet Laureate is taken very seriously — it is Carol Ann Duffy right now — and it’s all very highbrow. But if there were a poet laureate of romance and comedy, I think it’s Richard.
“I think we underestimate romantic comedy in movies,” Boyle said. “Those things [romance and humor] are essential nutrients in your life. … When I read his script, I said, ‘Richard, this is like Coleridge or Wordsworth: it is unborrowed genius. That’s a bit over the top to say about a movie script … but it’s been a delight for all those reasons.”
For his part, Curtis said he’s attempted to carry on the Beatles all-you-need-is-love philosophy in his career.
“I always feel that what I’d chosen to do in my work has been, in a very junior version, something like their tone,” Curtis said. “I try to make myself happy and, in a funny way, kind of ecstatic, which they always did without becoming only pop stars. Even their slow songs are happy, like ‘Help!’ and ‘I’m So Tired’ and ‘You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.’”
“My aspiration — knowing that no one can be in that league — is to make people happy and make them feel emotional things,” he said. “If I have to say what the central inspiration was [for his previous movie scripts], I would say ‘The Beatles,’ rather than Billy Wilder or Woody Allen or Nora Ephron.”
Early reaction from the Beatles camp has been positive, although neither the surviving Beatles, Yoko Ono, Olivia Harrison nor their company, Apple Corps Ltd, have any formal association with “Yesterday,” other than licensing the songs Jack sings.
“I loved it,” Starr told The Times through a spokeswoman while he was on tour in Japan. “It's a great premise — he's like us but nobody knows him. Great scenes with Ed Sheeran. I thought the vibe of the movie was great and it's really interesting — especially if you're one of them."
Boyle also got a supportive word back from McCartney about one facet of the project.
“When we decided to call the movie ‘Yesterday,’ I wrote to Paul and said ‘Is it OK? What would you think?’” Boyle said. “He wrote a very sweet note back and said ‘You should probably consider calling it ‘Scrambled Eggs,’ since that was the original title [of his song]. It would be a very good title, but like me, you can settle for ‘Yesterday’ if you like.’”