“Yesterday” director Danny Boyle asked composer Daniel Pemberton to help actor Himesh Patel become comfortable with the Beatles material he’d be performing. Pemberton hesitated until Boyle promised the job would only last three or four weeks.
So Pemberton said yes, and was on the film for a year and a half.
In the film, Patel plays Jack Malik, a struggling singer who is about to give up on his career when an unexplained phenomenon erases all memory of the Beatles from the entire world — except, amazingly, for him. He starts playing Beatles songs that nobody else knows and is acclaimed as a songwriting genius.
Pemberton recruited a singer-songwriter friend, music supervisor Adem Ilhan, and together they turned the “EastEnders” actor into a credible musical performer who (in the romantic-comedy script by “Love Actually” writer Richard Curtis) turns his memories of Beatles songs into a meteoric rise to pop stardom.
Pemberton, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for scoring Boyle’s “Steve Jobs,” said those “three or four weeks” turned into a massive job involving musical direction, working with the actors and, finally, scoring the film with a recognizably Beatles-flavored soundscape.
“We worked with Himesh on all aspects of performance,” Pemberton told Variety. “The idea was to get him comfortable with the songs and getting him to the stage where basically he could play Wembley Stadium.”
All or part of 25 Beatles songs are heard in the film, mostly sung by Patel live on the set. Pemberton says the choices of what wound up in the film were “all in flux,” with some locked in early (“Yesterday,” “Help”) and others that became key moments later (“The Long and Winding Road,” “Back in the USSR”). “Penny Lane” was among those considered but dropped along the way.
“We spent a long time with Himesh, working out the best way to perform each of these songs,” Pemberton says. “Danny loved the very raw, human performances. He didn’t want stuff that was too over-produced. We did loads of sessions; we built Himesh a band and got him rehearsing for weeks so he would have the confidence to play with other musicians.”
They even sent him out busking on street corners in London and Gorleston-on-Sea, to “get him in the mindset of Jack and the fact that no one cares and you just get ignored by people.”
Pemberton’s biggest challenge was in “trying to get things feeling different than the Beatles’ [original performances] but not being so far away that you couldn’t connect the dots between them.” They tried “a lot of versions” of everything in order to find the right approach: an intimate “Yesterday” with solo guitar and “Long and Winding Road” with piano; stadium-rock versions of “Back in the USSR” and “All You Need Is Love”; a funny recurring bit as Jack tries in vain to recall all the lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby” and another as he tries to sing “Let It Be” to his oblivious family in their living room; and brief hints of others in the background, from “A Day in the Life” to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Pemberton says that Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were consulted “behind the scenes” but that he wasn’t involved with them. Following on the theme of the film, “the Beatles sadly don’t exist in the world I was working in,” he says.
Pemberton not only produced the Beatles songs in the movie but also co-wrote Jack’s original songs, which Boyle thought should be “really average” (to which Pemberton responded, “you’ve got the right guy for that”). Jack’s “Summer Song,” Pemberton says, “had to feel good enough that Jack felt he could make it as a songwriter, if only he had the right break. It couldn’t be the greatest song of all time.” Ilhan and screenwriter Curtis were his co-writers.
As for the score, “Danny didn’t want a pastiche Beatles score, trying to do ripoffs of their songs. But we wanted to evoke that world — I liken it to, if the Beatles got asked to score a movie, how would they do it without making it sound like Beatles records?”
Pemberton’s answer was to use some of the same instruments, including Abbey Road’s famous “Mrs. Mills” piano (heard on “Lady Madonna”), and similar recording techniques like placing tea towels over drums “to give them Ringo’s very distinctive dampened sound.”
He was aided by mixing engineer Sam Okell, who worked on the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” and White Album reissues, and who used the classic REDD four-channel mixing desk at Abbey Road for some cues. “It’s got the most insane distortion you’ve ever heard,” Pemberton says. “At the end of my experiments, I’d laugh, because there would be no way this was going to end up in a British romantic comedy. But then the genius thing about Danny is, that’s exactly what’s going to end up in a Danny Boyle British romantic comedy.”