A very different kind of Beatles movie
Perhaps the best way to characterize the career of British director Danny Boyle is to point out what he hasn’t done rather than what he has. Aside from his sole sequel — “T2 Trainspotting” (2017), the follow-up to the drug drama “Trainspotting” (1996) — he hasn’t repeated himself, jumping from genre to genre, from ensemble pieces to near-solo studies, from cute comedy to searing horror. It seems that the only thing his films have in common is dissimilarity.
Go ahead. Try to connect the tension of “Shallow Grave” (1994) and the dread of “28 Days Later . . .” (2002), or the innocence of “Millions” (2004) and the panic of “127 Hours.” Then add in “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008),which won him a best director Oscar, “Frankenstein” (2011), and his direction of the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Now, with “Yesterday,” Boyle, 66, has made what he’s calling “my first light romantic comedy.” It’s a music-drenched fantasy about what would happen if everyone, with the exception of a hungry singer-songwriter, had all memories of the Beatles erased. Richard Curtis (“Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “War Horse”) wrote the script.
Speaking by phone from a car near his home in the East End of London, Boyle was asked if such diversity was by choice or happenstance. He said, “In the case of Richard’s script, after reading it, I said yes instantaneously. With other films, your subconscious asks you to react to things that are different, to challenges you haven’t done before. I hadn’t done a light romantic comedy, and I still hanker after doing a proper, full-on musical with dancing.”
Q. You were quite young when the Beatles hit the scene in England. Do you recall first hearing them?
A. I remember hearing them very early on. My twin sister and I were about 7. We were upstairs in bed, and we used to play at being the Beatles. She would be Paul, I would be John, and our younger sister, who was 4, got to play either George or Ringo. The reason we were doing this is because downstairs, our parents, who we always imagined were older — as you do with your parents — were actually playing the original 7-inch singles. Only when I was making this movie, and started thinking about that, did I realize that they were young then. That they were downstairs, listening to the Beatles, to the new sound. And their children, who weren’t quite old enough to get it, got it in a childish way, by playing a game upstairs.
Q. Looking back on that time, what are your thoughts about the Beatles phenomenon?
A. At the end of “Yesterday,” we have an image of four screaming girls. At the time, people like them were dismissed as hysterics. But actually they knew something that the establishment [in England] did not know. That a new force was about to dominate our country and then the world, and the force was not just the Beatles, but popular culture as a belief system. It was a belief system that had its own economy, and its own values, and it was for generating peace and love and self-expression and pleasure. So the change, especially looking back now, was really profound.
Q. The story idea for “Yesterday” came from the TV writer Jack Barth. But Richard Curtis was brought in to write the script. How did you get involved with the project?
A. I had worked with Richard on a section of the Olympics opening ceremony — he wrote the Rowan Atkinson part. We kept in touch since then, swapping odd messages. I remember sending a note to him, casually saying, “Hey, if you’ve ever got anything, remember me.” He wrote back and said, “Funny you should say that, I’ve got this script.” He sent it, I read it straight away, and I laughed and I cried and I was staggered at the idea, and I just said, “I’m in, Richard. Let’s do it.”
Q. Were there ever any second thoughts? Were you at all concerned about making a film about the Beatles and screwing it up?
A. No, I wasn’t. But I think that might be why Richard offered the film to me to direct instead of doing it himself. His own love of the Beatles is really intense, and I think he was worried about doing it. He’s had a lifelong, almost insensible devotion to them. Mine isn’t quite so intense. I have to say, mine’s more expressed through David Bowie, Led Zeppelin, and especially punk rock when it arrived. I’m obsessive about those more than the Beatles. So I didn’t have the fear. But I can recognize now why I should have worried about that.
Q. Speaking of punk, there are a lot of Beatles songs performed in the film by your lead actor, Himesh Patel, who does them in all sorts of different styles. There’s definitely a punk attitude to his version of “Help!” Whose decision was that?
A. I pushed for that one. Himesh’s versions of the songs were, naturally, faithful [to the originals], and also very clean and fresh. I insisted that his singing had to be live because that’s when you experience his freshness and connection with the material. Secondly, I didn’t want people coming in with clever arrangements, so we worked very hard to keep them simple. I pushed very hard for that version of “Help!” because I thought it brings it closer to the original intent of the song. Everybody knows the pop song; nobody really knows the scream behind it, of the Beatles suffocating in all of that noisy adoration. I’ve always thought it was John’s cry for help. So that was the one song that we took the risk with.
Q. There’s a wonderful scene where Himesh and a couple of others are making their first garage recordings of Beatle songs, and they’re wearing dishwashing gloves to do the claps that were so prevalent in Beatles songs. Was that based on any fact?
A. I don’t know if the Beatles did it, but apparently, it’s quite common to wear kitchen gloves in the studio when you want to get an extra edge on the clap. One of the greatest pieces of clapping on record is at the end of David Bowie’s “The Secret Life of Arabia.” When Darryl Pemberton, our composer, told me that gloves were used on that I said, “Oh! Get the gloves!” And our prop people got some gloves straight away.
Q. Himesh covers so many Beatles songs throughout the film. How come you have the Beatles singing “Hey Jude” over the end credits?
A. We have a joke in the film about the song being called “Hey Dude.” And we didn’t want to risk that a generation of people might grow up thinking that one of the greatest songs ever written was called “Hey Dude.” We asked Paul if we could use the original masters, and we were allowed to, so I felt it was only right that we should let the original speak for itself. I also thought that after hearing Himesh do about 17 songs, the last thing we should hear is the original, all of it, all seven minutes and 11 seconds of it.