How Yesterday’s Producer Made the Beatles-Themed Film Come Together

The nobody-knows-who-the-Beatles-are high concept driving Yesterday (opening Friday) may not have originated with producer Tim Bevan, but the Working Title co-chairman responsible for five Oscar-nominated movies knew exactly how to take the idea and run with it. American humorist Jack Barth created the fantastical scenario about a busker who wakes up from a bike crash and discovers that he’s the only one in the world who remembers the music created by John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Jack then wows the world by presenting their songs as his own.

Bevan’s team sent Barth’s premise to Richard Curtis, who wrote Working Title hits Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually. The rom-com maestro penned the finished script. “The marriage between Richard’s storytelling sensibility and the Beatle songs is very good,” Bevan says. “In Richard’s hands, love is never corny and it’s been at the heart of every film we’ve made together. He sees the beauty in life rather than the horror in life.” 

To secure financial backing for Yesterday, Bevan pitched the concept to Universal Pictures Filmed Entertainment Chairman Donna Langley. “She said it sounded like a tricky one to pull off,” Bevan recalls. “Her concerns were, ‘Will anybody buy this [premise]? And ‘Can you get the rights to the music?’ was the other thing that came out of her mouth. But we’ve had a pretty good run with Universal over the years so Donna was pre-disposed by the combination of Working Title, the Beatles and Richard’s storytelling. And also, we didn’t break the bank because we were able to make the film on a modest budget by studio standards.”

Bevan enlisted Oscar-winner Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) to direct Yesterday. Given earlier films like the brittle Steve Jobs and heroin addiction saga Trainspotting, Boyle might seem like an unlikely candidate to helm an “All You Need Is Love”-themed romantic comedy. But Bevan had a hunch. “Danny is known for his slightly darker work but quite to our surprise there’s a soft spot in him as well,” he says. The Boyle-Curtis collaboration in some ways resembled the famously complementary partnership between sometimes cynical John Lennon and the more sentimental Paul McCartney. Bevan notes, “Danny probably knocked a little bit of the too-soft edge off Richard and vice versa, Richard with Danny.”

Yesterday does not use Beatles master recordings, but Bevan still had to secure permission to feature 15 songs ranging from “Hey Jude” to “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Sony Music, which manages the group’s publishing rights signed off on the project, as did Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Ringo Star and George Harrison’s widow Olivia. Bevan says, “Paul, who knows Richard and Danny, said, “If anybody’s going to do this, these guys should do it.”

With the script, director, and songs in place, one big challenge remained. Boyle wanted his lead to perform the vocals live on set. “Danny wanted to hear the simplicity and beauty of the Beatles songwriting, so he decided ‘Let’s not put a band around this guy. Let’s see how simple we can make it.'” During auditions for the role of busker Jack, Bevan explains, “It quickly became apparent that we needed somebody who could act, sing, play the guitar and play the piano.” Himesh Patel, known to British audiences for his role in TV drama EastEnders, got the gig despite his lack of box office clout. “Convincing the studio that a guy who’d only been on an English soap opera should play the lead in a film—with a lesser director than Danny Boyle, that probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Lily James, who’d appeared in Working Title’s Darkest Hour project, came on board to play Jack’s love interest, while sound recordist Simon Hayes, the man behind Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway’s live singing in the Bevans-produced movie musical Les Misérables, lent Boyle technical support. “What you hear in the movie is what Himesh sang on the day because that makes it feel real,” Bevan says. “He’s not perfect. He’s the everyman. And it’s the blemishes that make something truly beautiful.”

Featured image: Himesh Patel as Jack Malik in “Yesterday,” directed by Danny Boyle. Photo Credit: Universal Pictures


Hugh Hart

Hugh Hart has covered movies, television and design for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired and Fast Company. Formerly a Chicago musician, he now lives in Los Angeles with his dog-rescuing wife Marla and their Afghan Hound.