Tribeca: 'Yesterday' Team on Challenge of Replacing The Beatles With Unknown Singer-Songwriter

Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis - Getty - H 2019
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

"These are some of the greatest songs ever written, and people know the original versions, and they've got to be performed by somebody that's going to make you think you want to listen to him doing them rather than the originals," director Danny Boyle said of the difficulty of finding a compelling lead in Himesh Patel.

In the upcoming Universal movie Yesterday, a freak accident causes the entire world to forget about The Beatles, except for one man, struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who begins performing the Fab Four's famous songs and rockets to superstardom as unsuspecting listeners believe he wrote the acclaimed compositions.

Having an audience believe that an average man is responsible for the work of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr is a tall order both in the world of the movie and for moviegoers, but it's a challenge that was easier to overcome, Yesterday director Danny Boyle said, when he found Patel, who makes his feature-film debut in the movie.

"These are some of the greatest songs ever written, and people know the original versions, and they've got to be performed by somebody that's going to make you think you want to listen to him doing them rather than the originals," Boyle told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the Yesterday world premiere as the Tribeca Film Festival's closing-night screening. "How are you going to find that guy? And we auditioned a lot of people and a lot of them are like karaoke, which are entertaining for a couple of songs but to sustain that length of development of songs over a 110-minute movie, it would rise or fall depending on if we found this guy."

Boyle explained that Patel's solo performance of "Back in the U.S.S.R." to just him and the casting director was what won him over.

"I know that song backwards, and yet it felt fresh, like I was hearing it for the first time," Boyle told THR. "And he hadn't changed it — it wasn't unfaithful or a radical reworking. I thought, 'That's him,' really. Because if you can make it feel like you know the songs and yet they feel like the first time you heard them, that both delivers the plot, everybody's forgotten, but also the familiarity, which is buried in everyone I think — great music, in some way, when you hear it, you think 'I know that.'"

In order to create a world in which everyone's forgotten The Beatles, screenwriter Richard Curtis said he too had to unfamiliarize himself with the group's work.

"One of the things strangely that I didn't do was listen to The Beatles' music because I tried to say, 'If you suddenly found out that there were no Beatles music, which tunes would you suddenly be able to remember, and certainly which lyrics would you be able to remember.' So, strangely, I normally listen to music all the way through writing a film and I didn't on this occasion because I wanted to have to remember Beatles song after Beatles song," Curtis said.

But once they found Patel and rediscovered the magic of hearing The Beatles' music for the first time, there were still some challenges in rearranging the songs that power the film.

"Yesterday is quite a hard song to arrange and do differently and we had to change key to get the best performance from Himesh," music producer and composer Daniel Pemberton told THR. "Every song had its own challenges. Danny wanted to turn "Help" into this cry for help and this really angry thrash punk number, and "Here Comes the Sun" we thought how can we do this differently … just trying to rearrange these songs and write them in new ways that felt like the original Beatles songs, like the impact but had something different to them."

Beyond that, Pemberton said that the Beatles' sound inspired the score.

"The influence of The Beatles had a really big impact on how we wrote the score and trying to be influenced by the sonic world they created but not like pastiche Beatles music," Pemberton said. "Danny was very keen on things not just being like a straight cover version, Danny was like, 'How can we do something different with the Beatles songs you've heard so many times before?' And what I think is fantastic about Danny is he doesn't do the obvious thing. He always tries to push it in a different way."

Yesterday was enthusiastically received by the audience on Saturday night, but the packed auditorium's response to the film wasn't quite as loud as the cheers heard from the crowd when Tribeca co-founder Robert De Niro joked before the screening that the concept for the movie gave him an idea for another film.

"One where the world wakes up and no one has ever heard of Trump," the actor, who's been a regularly outspoken critic of the president, said. "That would be a film that would make us all very happy. Danny, Richard, let's talk."