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Danny Boyle On 'Yesterday,' A Magical Realism Mystery Tour Of Beatles Songs

In <em>Yesterday</em>, directed by Danny Boyle, Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik — the only person on Earth who remembers the existence (and the music) of The Beatles.
Universal Pictures
In Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle, Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik — the only person on Earth who remembers the existence (and the music) of The Beatles.

In the story of Rip van Winkle, a man asleep for 20 years wakes up in a world where people know things that he doesn't. Flip that, and you'd have a story about someone who wakes up to discover he knows things that no one else knows. That is, you'd have the premise of the movie Yesterday.

Yesterday is a sort of fantasy/musical/romantic comedy/drama. It follows Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) as a struggling musician who discovers one morning that he is the only person on Earth who remembers The Beatles or their songs, launching a rock-star career that drives him further from his manager and best friend, Ellie (Lily James).

Danny Boyle is the director — and you would have to have been asleep for about 20 years not to know about some of his movies: Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire, 28 Days Later and so on. He spoke with NPR about making his newest movie.

Interview Highlights

On what struck him about Himesh Patel's voice

Although obviously, our fictional audience in the film have their memory erased of The Beatles, but of course, the real audience watching the film in the cinema doesn't. So you have to have someone who can represent the songs to both those audiences. And it was a struggle at first to find someone. ...

Most of the people came in, it felt a bit karaoke. And then he walked in and he did "Yesterday" — and yet it was almost like it was his. And I had this ... double take for a moment and I thought: That's what we need! But he was transformational with the songs, and I think I know why it is, really, now. Even in their most joyous songs, and they wrote some wonderful ones, there's a little sub-note of melancholy. And Himesh has that in him as well.

On the emotional performance of "Help" in the film

The truth is that it was written by John [Lennon] out of pain, really — it was a scream for help. ... The character Jack is [at] a terrible moment where realizes the lie he's living is not only a lie — it's also dragging him further and further away from his best friend and, actually, the love of his life, Ellie. We did it by making it a kind of punk-rock version of the song — exemplifying John's cry for help.

On having launched the careers of several actors with their first big roles

Himesh Patel and Danny Boyle on the set of <em>Yesterday</em>.
Jonathan Prime / Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Himesh Patel and Danny Boyle on the set of Yesterday.

I'm very attracted to an unknown, especially in a character that has got a huge journey to make. ... I love putting an unknown in there. Because if the film is successful and works, it does put a spotlight on that actor, and they have to deal with what we see Jack trying to deal with — which is a stratospheric world of absolute fame and success. And people deal with it in different ways. I've been very lucky that people I've been lucky enough to be involved with in their career seem to have dealt with it very well. ...

Am I the bad guy in offering this? It's one of the inevitable consequences of being involved in this business, I suppose, really. I think you can deal with it well, though. Obviously, in our story, Kate [McKinnon's character] is very funny in encouraging him toward the worst aspects of it — the worst selfishness of it. But I think there's a nobler way as well.

Listen: I don't give any lessons to anybody because I'm no saint myself. But what you see in people when they approach the work is you obviously sparked a reach in them, an ambition in them, which isn't just venal — it's expressive as well. You know, they want to exercise their talent. And obviously, that's what you identify, and if you're lucky and good at it, you can find people who can stretch the audience and enthrall them with the way that they will take you on that journey with them.

On if he would ever direct a "full-blown" musical

I would love to do it. It's such a razor's edge, I think, doing them, that you have to set out with enough confidence in yourself and in your material to be able to pull it off. Because you have to spread that confidence to everyone else, really, to carry the day when your characters burst into song. I'm still working on it, can we say? ... Watch this space, yeah.

Art Silverman and Sarah Handel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.