Writer Jack Barth opens up about how his vaguely depressing script, Cover Version, was bought and turned into 2019’s romantic comedy, Yesterday.
Jack Barth says his original script, Cover Version, had a tone that wasn’t as light-hearted 2019’s Yesterday. Barth can best be described as a struggling writer. Having spent 40 years in the industry and writing 25 unproduced screenplays, Barth sold Cover Version to Working Title Films at 62-years-old. His script was about an average singer-songwriter who becomes one of the only people in the world to remember The Beatles (among other things). Taking a liking to this concept, acclaimed British filmmaker Richard Curtis bought the rights and teamed up with director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) to make Yesterday.
Curtis is credited as the sole screenwriter of Yesterday, with Barth receiving only a “story by” credit. In a variety of interviews, Curtis explains discovering the concept of a world where only one songwriter remembers The Beatles (via Cover Version) and then writing Yesterday – a script entirely his own. Yesterday’s protagonist Jack (Himesh Patel) becomes an overnight success thanks to his utilization of the Beatles’ songbook. However, Jack’s journey is complicated by looming guilt and a desire to be with his lifelong crush and friend, Ellie (Lily James). The film exhibits Curtis’ signature blend of romance and comedy that fans have become familiar with from films like Love Actually and About Time.
Barth told Uproxx that his original script was a much more depressing take on fame. Barth called the story very personal, lamenting on a thought he had while lying in bed one night: “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.” This musing lead to the idea of a musician not being able to sell The Beatles’ legendary discography. Unlike Yesterday, Cover Version’s protagonist doesn’t become an international sensation or achieve fulfillment. Instead, he only gets slightly better gigs than he did before, making Cover Version a contemplation on the relationship between artistic integrity, disappointment, and what it means to be a “successful” artist. Barth chalks this thematic difference between his script and Yesterday up to perspective:
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And 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. He met Rowan Atkinson at Oxford, he came out of Oxford and immediately rode Rowan Atkinson to huge success in his early twenties, he’s never been knocked out, as far as I know. Why wouldn’t this guy become the most successful songwriter in the world?
While the message of Yesterday may be different than what Barth had intended, the scripts were still remarkably similar. In Cover Version, the protagonist has a love interest named Ella, a school teacher like Yesterday’s Ellie. Also, both stories see their main characters seek out an old, humble, and content John Lennon who lectures the hero on the meaning of life (so to speak). These similarities make Curtis’ past comments that he wrote Yesterday without reading Barth’s Cover Version questionable. If Barth’s claims that he was cheated out of accreditation are to be believed, then that behind-the-scenes drama eerily reflect’s Yesterday’s exploration of message and messenger.
Yesterday was marketed as a milestone collaboration between two of Britain’s greatest filmmakers: Curtis and Boyle. The film was considered a success as it grossed $153.7 million worldwide on a $26 million budget. However, it received a lukewarm reaction from critics. Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus labeled it a “sweetly charming fantasy” with a “somewhat under-explored premise.” Perhaps that premise was unable to be explored because it was originally conceived by a writer unfamiliar with the type of fame Yesterday exploited. Unfortunately, like so many stories that get lost in the shuffle, Hollywood must have found Barth’s too poignant for the masses.