Saturday, September 20, 2008

Across the Universe

Movies based on Beatles songs have an uneven history at best. At one end of the spectrum is the animated classic Yellow Submarine, which is often counted as a Beatles movie even though The Beatles' involvement in the film was minimal. At the other end of the spectrum is Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which not only had no real script to speak of, but also butchered many, many Beatles songs. Fortunately, Across the Universe falls somewhere in between.

Directed by Julie Taymor, Across the Universe features some truly astounding (and sometimes bizarre visuals). Essentially looking at the United States from the years 1964 to 1969 through the songs of The Beatles, the movie progresses from the rather ordinary days when John F. Kennedy was president to the psychedelia of the later Sixties. Perhaps the two best sequences are the one to the song "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," set in an army induction centre (it has to be seen to be believed), and the one built around "Happiness is a Warm Gun," which even includes black clad nurses in a psychedelic, Busby Berkley sequence (with some influences from the opening titles of Bond movies of the era). The most bizarre musical sequence may be "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," sung by Eddie Issard, accompanied at one point by Blue Meanies from the film Yellow Submarine (or things that look like Meanies anyway)....

Besides its rather amazing visuals, Across the Universe's strongest point may be its music. Both Jim Sturgess (who plays displaced Liverpuddlian Jude) and Evan Rachel Wood (who plays Lucy) have excellent singing voices, and the movie does well by most of The Beatles songs it adapts. I particularly liked the film's versions of "Hold Tight," "Come Together (sung by the legendary Joe Cocker)," and "I Am the Walrus" sung by Bono. The only song I can say I truly didn't like in the film was its version of "Let It Be," which only amplifies the worst aspects of Phil Spector's production on the original release of the song (I much prefer the Let It Be Naked version).

While Across the Universe has great visuals and makes good use of The Beatles songs, it does have its weaknesses. As a rule, I have always maintained that a good musical should have a plot that would still be enjoyable even if the songs were removed. This is true of the classics, including Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin' in the Rain, and, of course, The Beatles movies. Sadly, it is not true of Across the Universe. Its plot is not particularly cohesive, often jumping from one scene to another and even including a scene featuring the Detroit riot of 1967 which had no real connection to the characters of the plot. And while the entire cast gives good performances, the only truly well developed characters are Jude, Lucy, and Lucy's brother Max (played by Joe Anderson). And as well as all of the actors' performances are, none of them can really overcome the little the script gave them with which to work.

Over all, I would say that Across the Universe is worth watching, particularly if one is a Beatles fan. That having been said, one should go in expecting, not a great musical, but a visual and audio treat with some amazing sequences and great choreography, but little in the way of story.
I was tagged by Ched in his blog recently, and so I will go ahead and list Six Unremarkable Things About Me.

1. I am mostly English in descent.
2. I cannot function without coffee in the early morning.
3. I am a Beatles fan.
4. I have owned a computer for the past 18 years.
5. I grew up watching cartoons on Saturday mornings.
6. My eyes are green.


Bobby D. said...

What I love best about the Beatles is the sound of their voices and their lyrics of course, but mostly the sound of their voices, singing together and doing lead and backup vocals. I just love the original songs and think they can't be "beat". Not even close.

I'm the same as you with coffee and green eyes and cartoons and the Beatles.

Unknown said...

I had some problems with Across the Universe but never during the 2+ hour running time did I feel bored. Taymor has a visual flare that makes the film a visual feast but the story is badly lacking and for the most part, though easy to follow, uninteresting and half hazard like it was thrown together (which it sort of was to make the film). That said, I still enjoyed it too.

Row Three