Imagine there’s no Beatles: It’s very hard to do. And yet Yesterday, director Danny Boyle’s 14th feature film (out June 28), charmingly conjures a world in which The Fab Four never existed. The film’s conceit, as devised by screenwriter Richard Curtis, involves a global blackout that resets culture for everyone except teacher turned failed singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel). When, post-blackout, he sings “Yesterday” to the blank faces of his close friends — and subsequently finds the only Beatles Google turns up are insects — he begins writing the group’s songs as if they were his own. Ed Sheeran discovers him, a hilariously ruthless American manager (Kate McKinnon) signs him, and guilt-ridden global stardom (along with great singing by Patel) ensues.
Boyle is no stranger to music-driven films, having helmed 1996’s Trainspotting and 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, and he instantly loved Curtis’ “wonderful reset of [The Beatles’] music.” He spoke about the challenge of acquiring those songs — and of then compellingly presenting them onscreen.
Jack plays 17 Beatles songs in the film. How hard was it to get those rights?
Well, before I signed on, Curtis and Working Title [the film’s British production company] had negotiated with the aesthetic and financial guardians of The Beatles: Apple Records [the label The Beatles founded in 1968] and [Sony/ATV Music Publishing], respectively. Apple and Sony are very picky about not only who uses the band’s music but how it is used. Working Title did that first because there’s no point in spending money on a film like Yesterday unless you can guarantee you’ve got the music. It made for a top-heavy budget — the costs for the songs were very expensive, a substantial part of the film’s budget. [Billboard estimates such licensing costs could total about $10 million.] But they made a clever deal, allowing us the freedom to change songs up to the last minute.
Once I got involved, I wrote letters to Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and the two widows, Oli Harrison and Yoko Ono, respectfully laying out what I intended to do with the film. There’s obviously going to be nerves that somebody could be triggered or upset. But I got really lovely letters from Ringo and Oli. I can’t talk about it except to say it was very special for me.
You also were given a rare original master recording for “Hey Jude,” which plays during the closing credits.
It was amazing to get that — they don’t give the original masters away very much. And what better way to apologize for the film’s priceless “Hey Dude” joke [a change Jack makes at Sheeran’s possibly undermining suggestion] than to hear Paul’s magnificent version?
Naturally, I have to ask: What’s your own favorite Beatles song?
The last 40 seconds of “Hello, Goodbye.” [Laughs]. That groove [the “Hey-la" coda] is just it for me. I added that snippet to a scene in the film, shot in Liverpool’s Mersey Tunnel. But if I’m giving a serious answer, “A Day in the Life,” because it puts together Paul and John [Lennon's] genius in an edited fashion; they just handed the microphone to each other, for alternate verses. There’s something magical about that.
Nearly all the songs we included were in Richard’s original script, but I did also add [1968’s] “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” as a coda to the film. Any English artist that intersects with reggae — and this was the Beatles’ early dabbling with it — I love.
You have plenty of experience with stellar soundtracks. Has the process of acquiring rights changed much since Trainspotting in 1996?
At that time, it was tough to build a decent soundtrack; they weren’t a priority for [publishers or labels]. I lucked out with Trainspotting. Normally a film with a [tiny budget], you would not have gotten the master recordings of Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. But David Bowie had seen my first film, Shallow Grave, and liked it, and he apparently sanctioned the use of those tracks. Once you get that caliber [of artist], everything else falls into place.
Now, of course, artists want to be everywhere, really — even though there are no real soundtrack albums as such anymore, or very few. The Beatles are the exception; [Apple and Sony] want to keep a purity about it. But there are a lot of people in the business advising them not to restrict themselves so much, as older bands reimagine or reintroduce themselves to a younger audience.
Himesh Patel is terrific as Jack — a real discovery — but aside from a regular role on the British soap EastEnders, an unknown in America. Not someone, in other words, who is going to sell a film here.
It was a big risk, and I give Working Title and [co-producer] NBCUniversal credit for letting us go with Himesh to play Jack. They had been pushing us to cast a name — with such a top-heavy budget, they were looking for as many reassurances as they could get. The big issue was, could we find someone who could present these songs in a way where they sounded strange but familiar, too?
I’ve got to be honest: Most of the guys who auditioned for Jack weren’t able to do that, to make the songs sound surprising. A lot of them were technically more accomplished than Himesh, but when he came in it was like we’d never heard the songs before. Himesh [who plays piano and guitar] makes no claims of being an exceptional musician, but he had a natural aptitude and a voice that, for the songs, felt so natural. In fact, he led me to make the big decision that all his songs would be played and recorded live. That limits you since you can’t cut between different takes — the tempo will vary — which is why [nearly every director] pre-records music and the actors mime to it. But when Himesh sings, it feels like dialogue, and if you wouldn’t mime dialogue, why would you mime songs? [Yesterday's soundtrack will include additional songs recorded by Patel in the studio.]
How did Ed Sheeran get involved?
The part was originally intended for Chris Martin [of Coldplay]. Ed’s got a very good sense of humor and he teased us rotten about being second choice. Ed doesn’t really follow film. We first met at Richard’s house for dinner — they both live in Suffolk in England — and Ed clearly didn’t know who I was. [Laughs]. I saw him Googling during the meal, looking at my IMDb page.
What’s your own first memory of the Beatles?
I was eight in 1964, when they exploded in Britain and America. Me and my sisters used to play being the Beatles. My twin sister loved Paul McCartney so she would be Paul and I would be John and my little sister would be George or Ringo — we didn’t care which one. [Laughs.]
The Beatles are a huge part of anyone’s life, and particularly in the north of England, where I’m from and where they come from. But what I stepped into naturally [as a teenager] was Bowie and Zeppelin. I felt like they belonged to me more. So my affection for the Beatles is based not on fan worship but on absolute appreciation of Abbey Road and the White Album — what I call the hardcore albums.
To your mind, what nuances of the modern world would be lost if The Beatles never existed?
In my country, The Beatles took society and changed its direction. We had come out of the grueling endurance of World War II, and The Beatles said, “Not anymore.” It created a belief system that wasn’t about money — although money obviously has a part to play in it — or religion or war. It was about culture driving society and being young and not being our parents. It was about loveliness and pleasure and enjoyment. It was about love.
This article originally appeared in the May 25 issue of Billboard.