Yesterday (directed by Danny Boyle) is non-stop uplifting fun, but philosophers who are accustomed to trafficking in thought experiments will find it headache-inducing. Just what are we to suppose? At a minimum, this: after a world-wide power failure, almost every trace of the Beatles has vanished. People have never heard of them and “Beatles” turns up nothing in a Google search. However, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), an aspiring musician, remembers the Beatles’ songs almost perfectly. And so he starts performing them, which creates the movie’s main delight – seeing people hear the Beatles’ greatest songs for the first time. It’s particularly fun watching Ed Sheeran (played by Ed Sheeran) respond to Jack’s performance of “The Long and Winding Road”, which Jack supposedly wrote in 10 minutes. Sheeran is impressed.
The Beatles are gone, except in the memory of Jack, but the odd thing is that their absence seems to have no ripple effects. There were no Beatles, but there is still Radiohead (there’s a poster on Jack’s bedroom wall). There were no Beatles, but there is still Coldplay (a friend of Jack’s says “Yesterday” isn’t quite as good as “Fix It”). In general, the world appears to be unaltered by Beatles-lessness. So we are not being asked to contemplate the question “What if the Beatles hadn’t existed?” We’re just presented with a Beatles-less world. One that (somehow) includes one Beatles rememberer.
That would all be fine, if incoherent, but then the writers muddy the premise (many spoilers ahead). Jack meets two more people who also remember the Beatles and instead of outing him, they tell Jack he’s giving the world a gift by restoring the Beatles’ music. They also send him to visit John Lennon, who is 75 and living by the sea, never having been a Beatle. The thought we’re invited to have is just the sort of counterfactual thought that the rest of the movie suppresses: “If the Beatles hadn’t existed, the world would have been different in this, this, and this way.” For example, John Lennon might be happily living by the sea instead of having been shot in 1980 by someone obsessed with him as a Beatle.
Perhaps only a philosopher will mind, but after the John Lennon scene, we’re stuck saying Beatles-lessness does and doesn’t alter subsequent history. And we’re also bound to have even more worries about how it is that anyone can remember the Beatles. History must be different, and Beatles-less, in the world of the movie, if John Lennon is alive and well.
The best I can do is to construe the world of the movie not as a possible world in which the Beatles didn’t exist, but as a sort of mash-up of different possible worlds. The three characters who remember the Beatles come from a world just like the one before the power failure. The multitudes who don’t remember the band are dislocated denizens of a bizarre possible world in which there are no Beatles but otherwise the world is just like it actually is (John Lennon is dead, for example). John Lennon, in the movie, is from a more understandable world – the one that would have existed had the Beatles never formed a band.
Fine, the movie doesn’t present a coherent possible world, but it also has philosophical problems that are more narratively significant. Jack can’t bear to go on lying. For one, the lie interferes with the honesty needed for a happy and satisfying consummation of the love between him and his long-time best friend and manager, Ellie (Lily James). When Jack performs for a vast crowd at Wembley Stadium, he confesses that he didn’t write the songs. The Beatles did.
But how are the multitudes going to comprehend this? How could he convince everyone that he (and the two visitors) are the ones with veridical memories? Especially considering the John Lennon scene. How’s he going to explain that Lennon is alive and well, and not a Beatles-rememberer, yet history is just as Jack remembers it, and includes the Beatles?
Had screenplay writer Richard Curtis consulted with me (aren’t “what ifs?” fun?), I would have said Jack has to come clean at the end, but he doesn’t have to come all the way clean. He could have told the world only as much as they were capable of believing, which is something like this: as a songwriter, he felt like nothing but a conduit for a force outside of himself. Not only does this have the advantage of believability to his fans in the movie, but that’s in fact how some artists feel. It would have been a satisfying dramatic irony for the movie viewer to know he meant it literally.
With that change, we still get the movie’s ending: Jack gives away the music instead of profiting from it and enriching the soul-destroying music industry (represented by a cheerfully diabolical mogul played by Kate McKinnon). Again, the viewer would know there’s actually another reason he doesn’t want to profit, and they’d know it’s one that can’t be understood by the fans within the movie. The change would have given the movie something it lacks: the power to make the viewer feel not just entertained and uplifted, but smart.