There is a video that occasionally pops up online, but usually gets taken down quickly. It's an August 3, 1983, benefit concert at First Avenue for the Minnestoa Dance Theater — the night Prince debuted his new band, The Revolution, and played "Purple Rain" for the first time.
Every other time Prince plays "Purple Rain" from that moment until his tragic death in 2016, the opening chords are met with ecstatic cheers, and the audience sings along to the "woo woo-woo wooooo" of the coda. But not that night. When the anonymous First Avenue videographers who captured the moment pan across the crowd, most of them are half-ignoring Prince. Who cares about some new song that doesn't sound anything like "1999"?
- Himesh Patel in Yesterday
But for some of them, there is a growing recognition that something wonderful is happening. When Prince plays the climactic guitar solo like he's calling the angels down from heaven, a girl in the front row clasps her hands and bows her head as if in prayer. The guy beside her turns to his friend and, slack-jawed, jabs a thumb at the band. "Are you hearing this?"
That feeling of being there at the creation, when it suddenly felt like the world was new, is what Yesterday is all about. Jack (Himesh Patel) is a singer/songwriter from a sleepy English coastal resort town who splits his time between his music and working part-time at a Tesco-like warehouse superstore. Ellie (Lily James), his friend since childhood, is his "manager" and biggest fan. She comes to all of his gigs, which range from busking on the street to being ignored at children's birthday parties. Finally, she gets him a spot at the Latitude Festival in nearby Suffolk. He's excited. This could be his big break! But since it turns out to be in the locals tent, he once again plays to no one.
Terminally frustrated, he decides to hang up his guitar for good and return to teaching. But when he's riding his bike home after a row with Ellie, a mysterious worldwide blackout happens. In the darkness and chaos, Jack is hit by a bus. When he awakens in the hospital, he's missing a couple of front teeth. But the world, he soon finds out, is missing something more significant: The Beatles. No one but Jack can remember John, Paul, George, and Ringo. When he searches for them, Google asks, "Did you mean: beetles?"
So what does a singer/songwriter do when he's slipped into an alternate universe where no one has heard "Yesterday"? He struggles to remember the chords and lyrics, then passes the song off as his own. Jack's own personal First Avenue moment comes when he plays "Let It Be" for his indifferent parents. But slowly, word gets out about this kid who had a head injury and then starting writing incredible songs, and Jack is on his way to fame and fortune.
There are a lot of fascinating "what ifs?" along these lines, moments when a subtle twist here or there would forever change history. What if Elvis hadn't made a big impression on Sun Records' Marion Keisker and she never told Sam Phillips about him? What if DJ Kool Herc's family never migrated from Jamaica to the Bronx? What if Mark David Chapman's wife called the cops before he murdered John Lennon? But the real question is, would any of those scenarios make a better light comedy by Trainspotting director Danny Boyle and Love, Actually writer Richard Curtis?
Yesterday has its moments. Patel, a veteran British comedy actor, is charming and charismatic. He's no Sir Paul, but he can actually sing okay. English songster Ed Sheeran appears as himself, and he can actually act okay. The film finds some teeth when Kate McKinnon shows up as Jack's agent and starts dripping venom on the music industry.
But there's not enough of that. Like most music nerds, I'm a fan of the Fab Four. But I understand how folks are turned off by the hype from the Beatle Industrial Complex. The film treats it as a given that the world would be unrecognizable if no one had ever heard "I Saw Her Standing There" and that "Help" would be a hit in 2019 if you just punked it up a bit. Yesterday plays it safe and provides pleasant entertainment. But The Beatles took big chances and never took their own press too seriously. That attitude would have made for a more interesting — and funnier — film.
Yesterday Now playing at Cineplanet 16
Opens Friday at multiple locations