If the Beatles Had Been One Man

In the fantastical Yesterday, the only person in the world who remembers the Fab Four takes the band’s music as his own. How the film reimagines an iconic oeuvre through a single voice.

Himesh Patel as Jack Malik in Danny Boyle's 'Yesterday'
The director Danny Boyle wanted every song in Yesterday to be recorded live. (Universal Pictures)

Months before shooting began on Yesterday, the director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) presented a wish list of Beatles songs to his star, Himesh Patel, an actor best known for his work on the British soap opera EastEnders. In Boyle’s film, written by Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral), Patel’s Jack Malik, an aspiring musician, becomes the only man in the world to remember the Fab Four ever existed. The list was lengthy, Patel recalls, and at the top Boyle had written the titular track, “Yesterday,” in big, bold letters, with a box drawn around it.

Boyle and Curtis had approvals from the surviving Beatles members Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, and from the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison, to use the songs. So that day, Patel—an amateur musician who’d learned the piano growing up and later taught himself to play the guitar—had to point out the ones he wasn’t comfortable with performing just yet. There were many.

“I thought ‘Let It Be’ was really scary. ‘Long and Winding Road,’ I was like, Oof, okay,” Patel told me recently. “There were a lot where I went, Gosh, how am I going to do this? … I’m really not a musician.” He chuckled. “I’m an actor first, and a musician second, so I was really going to need a lot of help to get to that point.”

In Yesterday, Patel’s character, Jack Malik, wakes up after an accident to discover that he now lives in a world where the Beatles never made music. When he takes it upon himself to re-create their songs—and, therefore, present them as his own—he goes from busking for spare change to becoming a massive international sensation. He essentially turns into a solo Beatles act: John and Paul and Ringo and George condensed into one man. The film’s underlying question is whether Jack made the right call to preserve the band’s legacy by stealing their music. As he gets more famous, his relationships with his fans and the Beatles’ catalog become more complicated, and the tale of a star being born begins to double as an examination into how an artist can be inseparable from his body of work.

In practical terms, this meant that Patel, taking on his first feature-film role, had to transform—in a matter of months—into a musician capable of capturing the allure and spirit of the band. What’s more, Boyle wanted every song to be recorded live. “Danny didn’t want [Yesterday] to feel like a Beatles cover movie,” the film’s composer, Daniel Pemberton, explained to me. “You’ve got to respect the integrity of the original songs and what makes them work, but at the same time, find something slightly different to do.” Adem Ilhan, the co-music producer Pemberton brought on board to help train Patel, told me: “It’s like, Okay, we know the Beatles, but what do we think he’d remember about the Beatles?

Himesh Patel, who plays Jack Malik, with the film’s director, Danny Boyle (Jonathan Prime / Universal Pictures)

Still, the film isn’t just about paying homage to arguably the most influential band in history. Throughout Yesterday, Jack learns the ways in which the loss of the Beatles has infinite pop-culture repercussions (the band Oasis never forms, for starters), and he grapples with whether his decision to recover their music honors the band—or betrays them. Yes, there’s a love story involved, but Yesterday is ultimately about how notions of “authenticity” drive art, and it leans on the team behind the music to capture that conflict.

The first step: Turn Patel into a rock star. Pemberton and Ilhan took the actor shopping for a guitar, had production redress his drab rehearsal space into a replica of Jack’s cozy bedroom, and took him out busking, “so he could feel what it was like to be a singer-songwriter with songs no one cared about,” Pemberton said. They recorded at Abbey Road Studios, used instruments the Beatles used (a “Mrs. Mills” piano, a Höfner bass, etc.), and assembled a band to perform with Patel.

Oh, and they brought him an actual pop star: Ed Sheeran, who plays a version of himself in the film as Jack’s mentor. “I was like, ‘Do you ever have to just forget that you’re playing in front of tens of thousands of people?’” Patel said of seeking tips from Sheeran. “He was like, ‘Sometimes they become a bit of a blur, a blob,’ and he just plays to the blob, which is a very funny bit of advice.”

Taking Patel from amateur musician to pop-rock idol also meant delicately undertaking the task of tweaking the Beatles’ iconic tracks. Jack’s album, the cheekily titled One Man Only, becomes a genre-upheaving, blockbuster record in the world of Yesterday, but to make the Beatles’ sound work for a single performer and fit into a modern context, Pemberton and Ilhan stripped each of the chosen tracks down to their acoustic, melodic basics. After figuring out the bare bones of each song, they moved on to fitting them into Jack’s story.

Some tracks received striking makeovers. “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” the brazen 1968 track parodying Chuck Berry’s “Back in the U.S.A.,” had to serve as Jack’s breakout song. So Pemberton and Ilhan took the layered “whoo-ooh-ooh” riffs in the track and repeated them to encourage Jack’s audience to sing along. (As for the lyrics, which make little sense in today’s world, the film version of Sheeran addresses the issue in an amusing scene.) “Help!,” which arrives midway through the film, just as Jack starts feeling overwhelmed by his growing fame, is rendered at a faster tempo, with an angrier, more rock-and-roll tone. (Patel also puts in an aggressive performance, practically shouting the lyrics by the end of the anthem.) The tracks match Jack’s shifting emotions about his success as he learns the cost of stardom. “Every song is exemplifying the through-line of the story,” Ilhan pointed out. “It was quite a tricky line to walk.”

Even in the score, Pemberton tried to incorporate a sensibility reminiscent of the Beatles: For an early cue, he used the sound of bike spokes as the foundation for the melody. “[It was about] using their recording techniques that they have become synonymous with, but using that as a starting block,” he said. “I thought, I have to embrace the spirit of experimentation that they were really fantastic at.”

The film leans into that experimentation. Unlike other jukebox musicals such as Mamma Mia, Yesterday explains the genesis of its songs with performances that fuel the story, making it a highly meta and self-aware take on the genre the Beatles themselves played a part in popularizing. The film may use its high-concept premise to tell a romance and satirize the music business, but by the end, it’s most interested in making the argument that preserving art—even in an adjusted format, modified by memory—is better than losing it entirely. In fact, that thesis justifies Yesterday’s own existence: The film warps the music of an iconic band, but it does so to show the influence of their oeuvre.

For Patel, though, there’s a simpler takeaway. Making the film “reminded me of something I’ve always been passionate about but never quite had the confidence to try,” he mused. “I’ve realized I really do love playing the guitar and I love music, and … it’s something I really don’t want to lose.”