It’s the highest of high concepts, with a hook guaranteed to appeal to anyone of a certain generation: Imagine a world where, thanks to a freak cosmic occurrence, all evidence of The Beatles and their legacy has been erased from planet Earth. Only one lucky dude, a struggling performer named Jack Malik, remembers their songs—indelible tunes that delight those around him and eventually transform him into an international sensation with a big secret.
That’s the premise of the charming Yesterday, the first feature collaboration between two formidable names in modern British cinema: writer Richard Curtis, whose popular hits include Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Love Actually, and director Danny Boyle, whose wide-ranging credits include Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later, 127 Hours, Steve Jobs, and Best Picture Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire. Universal Pictures opens the Working Title production on June 28.
Interviewed by phone a few days after the film’s rousing world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, the effusive Boyle reflected on his collaboration with Curtis. “People say, ‘What are you doing working together?’ Because we appear to come from very different sensibilities. But we are filmmakers, both of us, who have stayed in Britain—there are a few of us, but not many. And we’re people who try to work in a more popular medium and try to make accessible films. We want the films to work in America and around the world—but we’ve stayed at home. So it felt natural to work together, though people regard us as being very different. I’ve always loved Richard’s work, albeit from a distance. Not just the movies, but you think about ‘Blackadder.’ I don’t care what you say about modern television, that’s one of the greatest things that’s ever, ever been written. So I have a real admiration for him and I regard him, as I constantly say in the hope of embarrassing him, as England’s poet laureate of comedy and romance.
“Also what happened is, I just finished a thing about the Gettys, a TV series called ‘Trust,’ which was an extraordinary experience, but there wasn’t much joy in it. So to be able to move from that to something like this, and then to have in addition this extraordinary idea of erasing The Beatles, why would you not do that in a million years? I’m so glad I did.”
At the Tribeca premiere, Curtis teased Boyle by noting, “We did send you Notting Hill, didn’t we, Danny? And he said, ‘No thanks.’”
“It was bit more complicated than that,” Boyle responded sheepishly. Curtis and Boyle had worked together briefly on a Mr. Bean spoof for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, which Boyle directed. When Curtis finished the Yesterday script (based on an idea by Jack Barth), he immediately sent it to Boyle. The director, true to form, asked for revisions, about 25 percent of the finished script, including a trip to Liverpool for inspiration, and a nightmare fantasy when Jack Malik appears on James Corden’s late-night show.
Crucial to the success of the film is the casting of the lead actor/singer. That assignment went to Himesh Patel, making his feature-film debut after a long run on the popular BBC drama series “EastEnders.” Boyle recalls the audition process: “I remember thinking, though probably not as clearly as I realize now, how it was going to be very difficult for a single individual to play all these songs and not have people go, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve had enough of that. I prefer to listen to the originals.’ I realize now in retrospect how dangerous that was. The truth is, we auditioned a lot of guys, some of whom were better players, probably better singers than Himesh, but all the time it did sound to me like karaoke or sing-along or, in some cases, why would you sing it so differently from The Beatles? Some of the actors came in and did a really radical version of a song and you’d go: Yeah, that’s great, but why would I think that’s more interesting than the way the song was in the first place? Then Himesh came in and suddenly [solved] this impossible equation: It’s gotta be the same, because why would you change it? The only way you’re ever going to remember it, even if it’s just recall, is if it’s the original version. But at the same time it gives you this feeling of freshness, like you were being introduced to the song for the first time. That’s the trick that’s being played on us and the audience in the fictional story. [The other characters] recognize the songs in some kind of way—you can see from their reaction to ‘Yesterday’ [in the film]. It’s like: Oh my God, what is that? When you hear a great piece of music, it’s like it’s already there and you’re just waiting to be awoken to it.”
Boyle adds, “There are a lot of people who did a lot of work on this film, but I have to tell you that all I was interested in was making Himesh sound like he did when he came in and auditioned for me. I thought if we changed that by introducing an expert who told him, ‘Oh, would you play that note?’ it would ruin it. The guy’s not the greatest guitar player in the world—it doesn’t matter. His connection with the songs is true, absolutely true. It feels like he’s not replacing them, he’s just rescuing them, so you will never be without them again. That was an amazing thing. I don’t fully understand it, but I’m grateful for it.”
There is one fairly radical version of a Beatles song in the film, when Jack gives a concert atop a beachfront hotel (recalling The Beatles’ famed final London rooftop performance) in his hometown of Suffolk. The song is John Lennon’s “Help!” and Jack, tormented by the pressure of fame and the secret he’s keeping, screams it like a punk anthem. “Apart from ‘Yesterday,’ I think it’s the most important song [in the movie],” Boyle declares, “because of the synergy of the emotional arc of his story and the connection with the true origin of the song, which was John’s cry for help, though that was lost in the love of melody and the pop sensibility that was suffocating them. They were the victims of their own success. To be able to pull all that together in one version was fantastic. I was a punk originally, that’s my musical background, and so to be able to do a punk version of that … When we played it for those people on that beach, they just jumped, they adored it. It felt like, wow, we have slightly changed The Beatles. But it’s not a rework, it’s part of the spirit of the song. There’s anger in it as well as beauty.”
A great coup for the production is its use of more than a dozen classic Beatles tunes. “Obviously, there were extensive negotiations to secure the rights to the songs,” Boyle says. “And they [Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison] carefully vet material associated with their work to make sure that they’re happy with it. But they’re not on board as producers or anything like that. I wrote to them all individually and got a couple of lovely replies and a couple of go-aheads. So we were very lucky and happy. As a result of all that, we got permission to use and play the original master recording of ‘Hey Jude’ at the end of the film, which I was very keen on, because I thought, I don’t care how good Himesh is, to be able to hear the original at the end is absolutely right and proper. It’s a fantasy, thank God, and [the songs] are still with us and always will be. ‘Yesterday’ is 50 years old, and I don’t see how you can improve that song. You just can’t. It sounds perfect—and modern.”
Boyle has a philosophical take on why these songs endure. “I believe they’re buried in us; they’re part of our DNA,” he says. “I really believe there are works of art that are [part] of our consciousness and our soul as a people. They’re representative, obviously, of the individuals who actualized them, but they belong to us and they’re part of us and they’re not a passing fad, they’re not a passing industry thing. I believe in culture, and for me music’s a huge part of this as a belief system. There are certain belief systems which make humanity work for good and for bad—one is money, one is war, one is religion—but the most important one for me is culture. It makes the world go round. It’s the most vulnerable as well, because it’s the only one of those things that won’t actually go to war on its own behalf. But I believe it’s a fundamental part of us—we are nothing without it. I think the songs are in some way buried in us and are awoken by people on our behalf. I really do believe that. That’s been my life experience.”
Daring to stand in the shadow of The Beatles in Yesterday is a real-life music superstar, redheaded one-man band Ed Sheeran, who plays himself and good-naturedly sends up his celebrity persona, (An early champion of rising talent Jack Malik, he advises a title change from “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.”) “He’s got a very good sense of humor, thank God,” Boyle says. “We asked Chris Martin first, but he turned it down because he wanted to spend a year with his family in L.A. Ed was touring at the same time, which made scheduling a bit trickier. But then it gave us a huge advantage of the crowds at his gigs. He allowed us to come in and film those for free, and our budget level could never have afforded us to stage those scenes. He mercilessly teased us about the fact that he was second choice. He wouldn’t let us forget it.”
Boyle adds, “I think it helped that he had a genuine admiration for Himesh, because as a pro he could hear that Himesh has got something. It isn’t technique—he meets lots of session musicians who’ve got way better technique. But he could see that Himesh had something that allowed him to tell the story of the song to you, as though you were hearing it anew.”
Yesterday also features Lily James (Cinderella, “Downton Abbey”), downplaying her beauty as Jack’s childhood friend and part-time manager, who has a longtime secret crush on the singer. (It wouldn’t be a Richard Curtis script without some romantic pining.) And, as she often does, “Saturday Night Live” Emmy winner Kate McKinnon steals the film as Debra, Jack’s hilariously blunt new agent, laser focused on how much money her protégé can generate. “She’s fantastic,” Boyle says. “I’m a big believer in comedians becoming actors—I think they make very fine actors. I like them to take it quite seriously, and she was up for that. She loved playing that scene where Debra asks Jack if he’s thirsty for fame. What she brought was interesting. The comic technique is to give you a number of options, to play it a number of different ways. But she brought that to the serious stuff as well. She’d do a scene and say, ‘Can you keep it running? I’ll give you a couple of different versions of this last bit.’ That was fun. And some of the actors were like: Whoa. It’s very funny, but she’s very serious. She goes away in a corner and she prepares, so she’s ready to dazzle you with what appears to be improvisation, but it’s actually very deeply thought through as well.”
From his very first feature, the 1994 comedy-thriller Shallow Grave, Danny Boyle has refined a highly cinematic visual style, infused with energy. Naming Apocalypse Now as his all-time favorite film, he notes, “I can watch a Tarkovsky film, my jaw drops in awe, but I love the stimulation that you can bring to an audience, the almost physical vibration you can bring them with storytelling if you get it right—and performance and music and all those combinations of things. A lot of it comes out of my love of music; for a long time I knew more about music than I did about films. I have to be honest and acknowledge that it’s the music that helps me, We were lucky enough to coincide as filmmakers with the growing acceptance of YouTube and pop videos and those short bursts of extraordinary invention and entertainment and vision. It took a little while for the mainstream film industry to realize that this is actually where we’re going, guys. I think we were lucky to coincide with that general movement.”
Boyle is also passionate about the theatrical movie format and the special experience it provides. “Time is a really incredible thing in movies. When you work for three or four months editing a movie, you realize its essence, whatever the movie is: You’re compressing time or extending it, or stopping it and then restarting it. There’s no other art form that does that. Television doesn’t do it, because television, especially in its modern iteration, is endless time. It actually just lets time run forever. These new formats are 10 parts, 12-part series—it’s just endless. Whereas film and theater is about this contract: We as filmmakers have done this thing with time in a story, and we want you to come and give us your time for two hours. That’s all. But when you come for that two hours, you’ll see time compressed, expanded. We will do with that time something that you’ll never get anywhere else. It’s absolutely critical; we’ve got to protect it. We will lose so much if we let it die. There isn’t any other art form that can do it. Picasso couldn’t do it, but movies can do it.”