Yesterday, everyone knew The Beatles. Today, only Jack remembers their songs. He’s about to become a very big deal. From Academy Award®-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and Richard Curties, the Oscar®-nominated screenwriter of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually and Notting Hill, comes a rock ’n’ roll comedy about music, dreams, friendship, and the long and winding road that leads to the love of your life.
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, BBC’s EastEnders) is a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town whose dreams of fame are rapidly fading.
“It quickly became apparent that if an actor couldn’t sing beautifully and play the guitar—as well as play the piano and act and be funny—then he wasn’t a contender,” recalls Producer, Tim Bevan, . “It also became apparent that whoever played Jack would probably be somebody who didn’t have film fame.”
Himesh Patel was not considered an obvious choice when casting director Gail Stevens and her assistant, Rebecca Farhall, first presented him to Producer, Danny Boyle. “They brought in this guy, saying he’s on EastEnders,” Boyle says. “I don’t watch the show regularly, but I had seen him. I was a judge on the short-film section of a festival called Shuffle, in the East End where I live, which one of my daughters runs. I picked Two Dosas, a 15-minute short, which Himesh was the lead in—very funny with his droll, modern, ‘boom, boom’ humor. I didn’t clock it then, but I realized it afterward.”
|As soon as Patel began to play, something clicked. “He played ‘USSR’ on acoustic guitar, and it was one of those ‘bing!’ moments,” Boyle says. “As soon as he sang it, I knew. There were other more obvious candidates for the role, but I knew then, ‘That’s him.’ It was like I’d never heard that song, a song I loved, before. He’d taken it over. He was utterly respectful with The Beatles’ songs, and yet free with them as well. It wasn’t some karaoke version that tries to be clever. It felt like you were hearing the song afresh. There was something about Himesh that the songs just belonged to him.”
Casting Patel, who is relatively unknown outside the U.K., may have seemed like a risk, but the decision to catapult him into the global spotlight mirrored the rise of The Beatles themselves. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison were just lads from Liverpool who created something extraordinary, and in so doing made an extraordinary impact on the world. “Danny and I absolutely loved Himesh,” says Producer, Richard Curtis says. “He was witty and charming; he stuck to this beautiful clarity that let The Beatles’ songs breathe on their own, and we loved the fact that he wasn’t particularly famous…unless you’re a fan of EastEnders. In which case, he’s one of the eight most famous people in the world.”
Despite the fierce devotion and support of his childhood best friend, Ellie (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again). Then, after a freak bus accident during a mysterious global blackout, Jack wakes up to discover that The Beatles have never existed… and he finds himself with a very complicated problem indeed.
James first came to prominence on the small screen starring as Lady Rose MacClare in Downton Abbey before making the leap into film with Wrath of the Titans. Her career has continued to flourish, and with recent critically acclaimed performances in Darkest Hour, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Baby Driver, she was a canny choice to play Ellie.
On set, the interaction between Patel and James somewhat mirrored the roles they were playing: Patel stepping into an arena that’s out of his comfort zone, James ably abetting him. “Lily helped Himesh a lot because she has carried that load [of being the lead in a film] herself,” Boyle says. “There’s something about them. They got on very well and shared that responsibility in the film very much.”
It turns out that Patel and James have mutual friends, so it was easier to connect on another level. “It was great to work with someone so professional but also someone that I could have so much fun with,” Patel says. “Lily was so generous and supportive of my journey as an actor. This was not only a daunting project, but it was my first film, so it was nice to have her support and to watch how she carried herself on set.”
The heart of Yesterday’s narrative is the story of these two characters who have grown up together—and who have an inseparable bond—but whose friendship takes a different turn when the extraordinary happens. “Whether you’re a huge Beatles fan or not, this is the type of concept that anyone can enjoy,” James says. “The film is about friendship, romance, family, success and music, which brings everyone together. It dives into what it really means to be successful and happy.”
Performing songs by the greatest band in history to a world that has never heard them, and with a little help from his steel-hearted American agent, Debra (Kate McKinnon, TV’s Saturday Night Live), and his kind-but-wildly-unreliable roadie Rocky (Joel Fry, HBO’s Game of Thrones), Jack’s fame explodes. But as his star rises, he risks losing Ellie— the one person who always believed in him. With the door between his old and new life closing, Jack will need to get back to where he once belonged and prove that all you need is love.
In an instance of art imitating life, the story for Yesterday was drawn, in part, from superstar Ed Sheeran’s rise to fame. “The film is vaguely based on Ed because he’s a friend of Richard’s,” producer Bevan says. So, it’s odd that Sheeran was not the first choice to play the role of a real-life star who, after seeing Jack on a local TV show, gives Jack his first big break, hiring him to be his opening act on an upcoming tour. “Originally that part was written for Chris Martin of Coldplay, but he didn’t want to do it,” Bevan says. “So, we went to Ed straight away.” Sheeran luckily said, “yes.” Still, during production he did seize every opportunity to rib the filmmakers about picking him second.
“Ed’s the son I never had,” says Curtis. “I had orange hair when I was young, and Ed’s got orange hair. The truth is that in some ways this film was about Ed—insofar as it’s an Ed that hasn’t succeeded, comes from Suffolk and is engaged to a girl he was at school with, which is the same story as Jack. They’re all sorts of ingredients from Ed’s life that were in my head because we’ve known him for years. We were in Suffolk with Danny when Ed came over for supper and Danny said, ‘You should be in the film. You should be the famous person who finds our not-famous person and helps him on his way.’”
Boyle remembers it well. “I went to a Hollywood-type dinner, I suppose, but where Richard lives in Suffolk,” Boyle says. “Ed lives locally. Himesh himself was brought up in Cambridge, where his mum and dad run a shop, which is very close by. You’ve got a lot of connections.” The director loved his brief anonymity at the party. “I don’t think Ed knew who I was; I could see him Googling me as the evening went on. Thankfully, I hadn’t disappeared! I heard him say, ‘Is this the guy who’s directing the movie?’”
This meal fell in the middle of the process of finding out whether Sheeran would agree to play himself. “He does have another career, you know,” Boyle says wryly. “But it was like a skeleton or an X-ray of the idea. He’s been through that movement in his career—a singer-songwriter playing local pubs in Suffolk and then being catapulted into unbelievable success and fame with a body of songs that has taken him there. Nothing to do with celebrity in any sense of the word, but actual songwriting graft and skill. It felt like a perfect way that he’s used in the film, just as he is.”
Once Sheeran came aboard, Boyle demanded the level of commitment he asks of all his performers: “I said, ‘Ed, you’ve got to spend time with us rehearsing,’” Boyle says. “Knowing full well his success means his time is very precious. He did the rehearsal and took it very seriously; he took notes very well. He knows about songwriting, so when he says to Jack: ‘How did you do that? I don’t believe you,’ you think he would know better than anyone that you don’t just turn out a song like ‘Yesterday’ like that. Although apparently Paul McCartney did, but these miracles don’t happen just like that. There’s a lot of graft involved. Whereas for Jack the songs just seem to appear literally in 10 minutes. ‘The Long and Winding Road’ appears to take 10 or 15 minutes.”
A major global music star himself, Sheeran identified with the challenges Jack faces when he skyrockets to fame. “It’s important to find a balance between your career and personal life,” Sheeran says. “It took me about eight years to find that balance, and it’s what Jack struggles with in the film.” And he was impressed with how Patel embodied Jack, and by Patel’s musical talent. “I don’t think anyone besides Himesh could have played the role of Jack as well as he did,” Sheeran says. “I got goosebumps the first time I heard him sing ‘The Long and Winding Road’ during our songwriting-competition scene. That’s when I knew it was going to be a truly special film. Himesh’s voice is beautiful, and he did wonders to the songs.” He pauses, “I don’t know what his plans for the future are, but I think he should make an album.”
Patel was just as dazzled by his co-star’s acting ability. “Ed is incredibly present and spontaneous as an actor,” Patel provides. “Every take we had together was different.” In one pivotal scene, Sheeran challenges Jack to an instant songwriting contest, while the other members of the tour look on. For his song, Sheeran used one he wrote himself. “The song I sang in the competition scene is called ‘Penguins,’” Sheeran says. “I wrote it ages ago and it never made it onto an album, so I thought it would be nice to use for the film.” It’s a lovely song, but after he performs it, Jack performs “The Long and Winding Road” as if he had written it in mere minutes. Sheeran, in the film, graciously admits defeat.
Although Sheeran had acted previously, notably in 2016’s Bridget Jones’s Baby and in a 2017 episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the musician is the first to admit that the extent of his screen time in Yesterday is far greater than with any project he’s done before. “Working on this made me realize how much of a longer and more-extensive process filmmaking is compared to making music,” he says. Admittedly, he was grateful for Boyle’s guidance and general bonhomie. “Danny had such a way of talking to everyone on set. Even if I made a mistake, he would tell me what was wrong in such a friendly way and made me feel good about myself.”
And, although Yesterday centers around the music of The Beatles, the filmmakers thought they would be missing a major opportunity if they did not ask Sheeran, one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, to write a song for the final scenes of the film. But it almost didn’t happen, and it took two attempts, years apart. “When I started writing Yesterday, I thought it would be a great idea to have, as well as all The Beatles’ songs, one wonderfully romantic song at the end, which is ostensibly written by Jack,” says Curtis. “I mentioned this to Ed, and he said, ‘I’ll write you one.’ He came back two days later with this song, and it was just perfect and we all got terribly excited.”
The song was “How Would You Feel?” Unfortunately, Sheeran’s record company agreed that it was perfect, too, which is why it was featured on his album “Divide” and not in the film. “That was disappointing,” says Curtis.
But all was not lost. Two years later, with Sheeran cast in the film, Curtis’ dream to close Yesterday with a song by the artist became a reality. “I originally wrote that the last song Jack performs would be on stage—but, as with everything in the movie, things change,” he says. Sheeran’s beautiful song “One Life” now plays nearly at the end of the film when at last Ellie and Jack’s love has a chance to blossom into reality, all barriers removed.
Curtis and Boyle, both huge Beatles fans, would not have made the film without the blessing of the surviving members of the band, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison. From the strength of those relationships, and with the approval of the musicians and their families, the production was then able to move forward and secure the composition rights to The Beatles’ songs for Patel to record for the film.
That didn’t make one aspect of Curtis’s writing process any easier: Of all The Beatles’ iconic songs, which ones do you pick? And, even harder, which ones do you leave out?
Find out at the screening on Closing Night Gala will include an awards ceremony announcing the winners of the Sydney Film Prize, the Documentary Australia Foundation Award, Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films, the Event Cinemas Australian Short Screenplay Award and the UNESCO, Sydney City of Film Award.