Yesterday: How That Pivotal Beatles Scene Came To Be


by Ben Travis |
Updated on

WARNING: Contains MAJOR spoilers for Yesterday

There are various levels of fantasy at play in Yesterday, the Beatles-centric rom-com from writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle. First of Jack, the struggling singer-songwriter who finds himself gifted with the greatest songs of all time that nobody else seems to remember. Second, that someone could fail to notice how much they love Lily James when she’s right there in front of them. And third, that – SPOILER WARNING – this Beatles-free world would result in John Lennon living a long and happy life, instead of being cruelly shot and killed at the age of 40 in December 1980.

In Yesterday’s final act, Himesh Patel’s now world-famous musician pays a visit to an older, wiser John Lennon – a surprising, moving, and perhaps controversial decision. In an Empire Podcast spoiler special, we sat down with Curtis and Boyle to talk about how the sequence came together.

The reason

John Lennon and Yoko Ono

The murder of John Lennon was a senseless tragedy – a musical icon, shot down by an obsessive fan. It’s an event that never left life-long Beatles devotee Richard Curtis. "It felt as though there'd been a tear in the universe,” he says. Boyle agrees: “It's an absolute aberration in time.” And so, in cooking up a fantastical world where the Beatles never existed, the filmmakers were able to re-conceive a more optimistic future for the great songwriter.

“The magic of cinema – not just magic, because that's a slightly fey word – the power of cinema is that it can do that. It can repair time,” says Boyle. “It was very special to be able to literally let the power of cinema re-imagine something, which is what it can do of course. It felt like a wonderful place to take our hero.”

The writing

Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle
©Jeff Spicer/Getty

On page and on screen, the Lennon sequence represents a tonal shift – a step away from the whirlwind of Jack’s rise to fame to something quieter and more contemplative. It appealed to Boyle from first reading. “I remember thinking, that is just fantastic,” the director recalls. “Because you think you're in one kind of movie, and then for a moment it just allows you sit in something wondrous.” Its power, fittingly, was akin to a piece of music. “Great songs have that power over me,” Boyle says. “‘Common People’, the Pulp song, has that power over me. It just transforms me every time.”

While writing the film, Curtis didn’t just include a visit to John Lennon – his original draft also featured encounters with the remaining Beatles. “When he first goes to Liverpool, I'd written a long scene where he just goes to a pub and he bumps into George and Ringo,” he reveals. “It was, I hope, a sweet scene, and they were just two delightful, oldish men who'd once been in a band together. He bought him a couple of drinks, and it was all very sweet because they were clearly music enthusiasts who had never got any further. Happy people who loved music, like so many of us do, and formed a band or been in a pub band.”

“It was the scene that had the most meaning, and was in some ways the pivotal scene of the film.”

Then there would have been a coda, with Paul McCartney making a last-minute appearance studded with in-joke references to the lyrics of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’. “At the very end [Jack] was going to move to the Isle of Wight, to a cottage, and you were going to hear outside his window someone saying, 'Vera, Chuck, Dave!' There were going to be three dogs, and Paul was going to be walking them,” says Curtis.

Ultimately, only the Lennon sequence remained when it came time to shoot, and it stayed as originally written – though Curtis initially wrote around 20 pages, which he whittled down to the final version. “It was the scene that had the most meaning, and was in some ways the pivotal scene of the film,” says Curtis on why it remained. As for Boyle, he would have “resisted” the other Beatles cameos. "I never saw any other version than this version,” the director says. “There's something very acute about the violence, the senselessness, of what John faced for a moment. Gone way before nature really took any kind of toll, which it will do of all of us as you get in your 60s and 70s and whatever. It's particularly acute for that."

As well as offering a far more preferable fate for Lennon, the encounter spurs the plot forward, moving Jack towards his decision to release the music for free to the world. “What you wanted to do was just transform Jack's experience for a moment. It does allow him to right a wrong,” explains Boyle. “We don't quite have the real power to right the wrong of Lennon’s death, but you do have the power through cinema to imagine it for a moment, that's all.”

The older Lennon

Liverpool - Albert Dock
©Christopher Furlong/Getty

We’ll never know what might have become of John Lennon, had he not been killed. But part of the catharsis for Curtis was imagining how his hero would have grown old – and how his life might have turned out had he not achieved worldwide fame. “Because Liverpool's a port, you get the sense that he's been a sailor, that he's travelled around the world, that he's been political,” says Curtis of his imagined Lennon. If it’s a fictional future, it’s one informed by all the things that made Lennon Lennon, music and mega-stardom aside. “He says at one point that he's fought for a lot of things and won once or twice, and also that he's made some brave decisions on love, as John did,” Curtis explains. “We're not specific about who with, but it's the idea that he had to fight to get love right, which John did.”

The man in the glasses

John Lennon glasses
©Ethan Miller/Getty

Behind those iconic rounded spectacles is an actor who looks and sounds like Robert Carlyle – who, of course, has worked with Danny Boyle before, playing Begbie in Trainspotting and its sequel T2 Trainspotting. But the director declines to name exactly who got the role, revealing instead that the mystery actor is a next-level Beatles fan. “It was the cause of a lifetime for that actor. A very special moment for that actor, who venerated John before he was taken from us,” the director says. “This actor venerated him his whole life, and knew even more about him than Richard Curtis knows – and Richard is the world expert on The Beatles, he'll drive you mad with all the things he knows about them. And so it's a very special coming together of them, in a way, which I want to respect."

The role remains officially uncredited, and the actor hasn’t been confirmed in any official capacity. "We agreed that we wouldn't use any kind of publicity for it,” says Boyle.

The reaction

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr
©Kevork Djansezian/Getty

Resurrecting John Lennon was always going to be a controversial decision, and the filmmakers were braced for a split reaction from audiences. “It's a marmite scene,” Boyle admits. “Some people think, ‘Oh no, you can't do that. You mustn't do that. I didn't like that.’ And other people do give in to it. Whether that means one set of people are romantic and one aren't, I don't know.”

For Boyle, it was all about how the scene was played. An idea that saw Jack playing some of the songs to Lennon didn’t make it for fear of coming off as offensive in some way. “You’ve got to be very tender with it,” says the director. “You can easily get disrespectful. I think the people who react against it just think it's disrespectful. They don't want to go there. But it was never meant disrespectfully, it was always meant absolutely tenderly and totally respectful to everything about him.”

And, of course, it won’t just be multiplex audiences responding to the scene, but also the two surviving Beatles – Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney – and the Harrison and Lennon families. The former has seen the film, and gave positive feedback. “We had a lovely message from Ringo and from Olivia [Harrison] about their experience watching the film, which was beautiful,” Boyle confirms. As for McCartney, at the time of the interviews he hadn’t yet seen the finished film – even though he approved its title. “He's seen the trailer and said, 'Yeah, the trailer seems to work! That's a surprise!',” Boyle laughs. If anything, it's the perfect response from the Liverpool lad done good. “It's that kind of undermining humour again that I absolutely adore, that we're built out of.”

Yesterday is out now in UK cinemas. Listen to the full Empire Podcast spoiler special podcast with Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle here.

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