Robert De Niro was not playing Robert Mueller on SNL this Saturday night but across town introducing the world premiere of Yesterday at the film festival he founded 18 years ago. The movie is about the human race losing all memory of the Beatles.
Still, he just couldn’t resist. “We had an idea for a movie where the world wakes up and no one has heard of Trump. That would make everyone really happy. Danny, Richard, let’s talk,” De Niro said, gesturing to Yesterday director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Richard Curtis.
The movie, which Universal will debut June 28, marked the closing night of the Tribeca Film Festival. In it, failing singer-songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) keeps the Beatles’ music alive and achieves global stardom from their songs as the only person alive who remembers the band after a spooky 12-minute global electrical outage.
Kate McKinnon, who plays Malik’s crocodile American agent Debra, was actually across town taping SNL.
Equal parts humor and nostalgia, the film has Malik’s parents continually interrupting when he tries to play them his “new” song, “Let it Be,” calling it “Leave It Be” and “Let Him Be.” Music producers diss the original album titles Malik suggests. But they love the songs, which are the star of the film.
Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 28 Days Later) and Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually and Notting Hill) said he worked closely with Sony/ATV on the rights every step of the way, including permission to use the master recording of “Hey Jude” to end the film. They wrote to Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Ringo Star and Olivia Harrison, George Harrison’s widow, to discuss a particularly controversial scene of the band’s past reimagined. “They were wonderful,” Boyle said in a Q&A after the screening.
Curtis originally sent Boyle the script. Both said they had loved the idea immediately. The Beatles are forever, said Curtis, recounting his kid’s school play where a 7-year-old William the Conqueror and Harald Hardrada held hands and sang “We Can Work It Out.”
Boyle said his first read was one of those moments when, “You just say, I’ll do it. You don’t think of your agent” — a loaded comment these days — “You just do it.”
Since the film is an ode to the enduring recognition of quality in an age of short attention spans and not a new Beatlemania, finding the right performer was key. Patel (BBC’s Eastenders), in his feature debut, doesn’t sound like the Beatles and doesn’t try to.
“You know you have to have a performer who can rebirth these songs for you. The songs don’t feel like cover versions,” said Curtis.
They all felt the pressure of a tackling a cultural icon. During filming in the Mersey Railway tunnel between Liverpool and Birkenhead, a cop stopped Boyle and said, “They were really good, don’t f*ck it up.”