May 28, 2020

Around this time last year, I came out of a press screening of Yesterday thinking that writer Richard Curtis and director Danny Boyle had wasted a fantastic concept. What if you were the only person on Earth who remembered the Beatles? The film gave the dullest possible answer: you’d become a megastar by playing their songs but you’d feel a bit grubby about it. As I wrote at the time, “Not only does Curtis not answer the questions he has raised; he doesn’t even appear to notice he has asked them.” Now it turns out that a much more interesting take already existed: the original screenplay.

Last week, struggling screenwriter Jack Barth told Uproxx how, in 2012, he wrote a screenplay called Cover Version about an unsuccessful singer-songwriter who — you’ve guessed it — is the only person who remembers the Beatles and presents their songs as his own. But while Yesterday’s Jack Malik, the latest in a long line of sweet but emotionally inept Curtismen, hits the big time, Barth’s protagonist does not.

Barth sold the screenplay to producer Matthew Wilkinson in 2013 and worked on a version with Mackenzie Crook (The Office, The Detectorists), before Wilkinson and co-producer Lee Brazier approached Richard Curtis three years later. “We worked quite intensely with Jack on the script but thought we might need a bigger writer for it,” Brazier told Screen Daily last year. Curtis’s star power quickly brought Boyle, Beatles rights-holders Apple Corps and co-star Ed Sheeran on board.

Barth’s role in the film wasn’t exactly secret but the Uproxx story struck a nerve, triggering news stories and social media uproar. Perhaps it’s down to the irony of the writer of a film about taking credit for someone else’s work apparently taking credit for someone else’s work, or perhaps a lot of people just hate Richard Curtis, but it was widely read as a plagiarism scandal. It’s not. Barth’s idea was bought and paid for, and he received a “story by” credit.

Even if the presence of certain key scenes in Barth’s draft — Jack playing ‘Yesterday’ to his startled friends, John Lennon’s appearance as a humble fisherman, the final gag — casts doubt on Curtis’s claim that he never read it and took nothing but a “one-line plot” from Barth, the film-makers’ only real offence was to shut Barth out of the promotional narrative, thus robbing a man in his 60s of a desperately-needed career boost.

The idea itself was not unique. You only have to consider the number of novels in which Nazi Germany has won the Second World War to see that historical turning points breed counterfactuals, and similar ideas involving the Beatles appear in Australian author Nick Milligans 2013 ebook Enormity and Eddie Robson’s Doctor Who audiobook 1963: Fanfare for the Common Men (both published after Barth wrote his screenplay).

The same year, David Quantick’s TV drama Snodgrass imagined a timeline in which John Lennon stormed out of the Beatles in 1962. In a 1996 episode of the sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart, George Formby’s agent attempts to buy ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ from Nicholas Lyndhurst’s time traveller. The differences are more interesting than the similarities. If you gave the same general concept — the Beatles’ music minus the Beatles themselves — to 10 writers, you’d end up with 10 distinct stories angles on the relationship between creativity and success.

The Curtis theory, as demonstrated in Yesterday, is that the Beatles’ songbook is so objectively, undeniably, timelessly great that, even in the hands of a modestly talented schmoe, it would rule the world. This is partly because Curtis wanted to write a conventional romcom about a man torn between the treacherous delights of fame and saintly schoolteacher Lily James rather than a high-concept comedy in the tradition of Groundhog Day; Wembley Stadium is a better venue for one of his trademark public confessions than the backroom of a pub.

But it’s also because success is the water in which he swims. “I think that the reason that Richard turned him into the most successful songwriter of all time is because that’s how Richard’s life is going,” Barth told Uproxx: “he’s never been knocked out, as far as I know.” It isn’t entirely true that Curtis doesn’t understand failure — The Boat That Rocked, his horny 2009 love letter to pirate radio, sank without trace — but he’s certainly more familiar with its opposite.

Curtis, who once waited for three hours to see the Beatles appear on the balcony of a Stockholm hotel when he was eight, must know that songs aren’t everything, but high achievers are great believers in meritocracy and boomers are typically steadfast in their conviction that their childhood faves could go toe to toe with any subsequent pop star. To Curtis, the idea that the magic of the Beatles would not work in 2019 is heresy.

The Barth theory, as far as I can tell without being able to read his screenplay, is that success is contingent on several factors — timing, momentum, charisma, connections, luck — of which inspiration is not necessarily the most important. “I was lying in bed one night thinking, if Star Wars hadn’t been made and I just came up with the idea for Star Wars, I bet I wouldn’t be able to sell it,” said Barth, who had 25 unproduced screenplays under his belt. “Carry that on to the Beatles, if I knew all the Beatles songs, I bet I couldn’t be successful with it.”

Anyone with a significant interest in the history of pop music knows this to be true. Simply compare the reputations of The Velvet Underground and the Bay City Rollers, then and now, to see the difference between talent and success. The Beatles, in being both the biggest band in the world and the best, were a miraculous exception. But remove the context of the 1960s, subtract John, Paul, George and Ringo, and there’s no chance that the songs alone would pull off that coup. OK, I could imagine ‘Something’ or ‘Hey Jude’ being hits if Coldplay (who wouldn’t exist without the Beatles but let’s shelve that thought) released them tomorrow, but ‘Back in the USSR’? A Cold War Beach Boys pastiche about a country that no longer exists? Nyet. ‘I Am the Walrus’? Not a hope.

While there are vestigial traces of this possibility in Yesterday — Jack’s family interrupting the world’s first performance of ‘Let It Be’, the record label laughing off his idea of calling his album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — the basic assumption is that the Beatles’ songs are too good to fail. Barth’s take, in which the singer achieves nothing more than a cult following, reminds me of a brilliant Catherine Tate sketch, spoofing Goodnight Sweetheart, in which a time traveller lodging with a family in wartime London treats them to a poignant rendition of ‘Let It Be’. “What a bleedin’ racket!” interrupts Tate’s cockney matriarch. “You tryin’ to deafen us all?”

The possibility that a classic song might go unloved in the wrong context — like ‘Johnny B Goode’ in Back to the Future — is far more provocative and, I think, credible. If you’ve ever heard a bad Beatles cover version (and they are legion), then you know that the singer is as important as the song.

The entertainment industry, naturally, prefers the Curtis theory. Films about missed chances and thwarted ambition, like Inside Llewyn Davis, are doomed to be niche because they’re fundamentally depressing. Who wants to be told that talent and ambition aren’t enough and you can follow your dreams down a dead end?

Barth’s Cover Version would most likely have been an eccentric indie movie even if Apple Corps had somehow been persuaded to license the world’s most zealously-guarded back catalogue to a film that diminished its power. Yesterday wouldn’t exist, at least not on this scale, if it were not partially an advertisement for the deathless magic of the Fab Four.

Yet Barth’s experience proves that, in fact, his theory is correct. It’s the narrative of Yesterday flipped on its head: a relative unknown has a brilliant idea but not the status to make it happen. It takes celebrity and influence to bring it to a mass audience. Success begats success while the unknown remains unknown. That’s not an uplifting story — you wouldn’t turn it into a hit movie — but it’s showbusiness.