Sunday, July 5, 2015

Julie Taymor's Across the Universe

In 1978 the musical film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, inspired by the music of The Beatles, was released. The film received overwhelmingly negative reviews and is even counted by many as among the worst movies of all time. To make matters worse the film was not even redeemed by its soundtrack, which featured some of the worst renditions of Beatles songs ever. When news emerged  of Across the Universe, then, Beatles fans had cause to be concerned. Even the involvement of theatrical director Julie Taymor probably did little to ease many, if not most, Beatles fans' concerns for the quality of the film. Fortunately, at least for a good number of Beatles fans, it would seem their concerns were not justified.

Across the Universe was conceived by Julie Taymor, who had already directed several productions on stage (including several Shakespeare plays and the stage version of Dinsey's The Lion King), as well as the films Oedipus rex, Titus, and Frida).  She conceived a film that would examine the Sixties through the lens of The Beatles' music.  Screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who had worked on such TV shows as The Likely Lads and Porridge, and had written screenplays for such films as Vice Versa and The Commitments) wrote the screenplay, which is at its heart a love story that spans the later part of the Sixties. The story actually emerged from the songs, with the filmmakers beginning with 200  Beatles songs and finally whittling it down to 33. The film's plot was then generated from those 33 songs.

Of course, Beatles songs do not come cheap. The filmmakers ultimately had to pay ATV/Sony Music and Michael Jackson (then owners of the Beatles catalogue) $10,000,000 for the songs used in the film. Strangely enough, one of the conditions for the use of the songs was that none of the posters for Across the Universe could reference The Beatles, even though from the film's trailers it was obvious that it was based on their songs.

The current owners of The Beatles' songs insistence on the band's name not being mentioned on posters was not the only hiccup Across the Universe had in making it to theatres. The film went through a protracted editing process, with Julie Taymor trimming the film following various test screenings. Unfortunately, Joe Roth, chairman of Revolution Studios (who produced the film), still  felt the movie was too long even after all the editing. He then had Across the Universe recut without consulting Julie Taymor, resulting in a version that was about a half hour shorter than her final cut. Julie Taymor was not particularly happy and even considered having her name removed from the film if it was Joe Roth's shorter version that was released. Julie Taymor stood her ground and ultimately it was her version that was released.

The amount of time it took to edit Across the Universe, as well as the feud between Julie Taymor and Joe Roth, would delay the film's release from 2006 to 2007. Ultimately it went into limited release in the United States on September 14 2007. Across the Universe received mixed reviews, with most of them being positive. In fact, it would appear on the top ten lists for the year of both Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and Stephen Holden of The New York Times, among other critics. As to the remaining Beatles themselves, both Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr liked the film. Across the Universe also received nominations for various awards (everything from the St. Louis Film Critics Association Award for Most Original, Innovative or Creative Film to the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical). Unfortunately, it did not do particularly well at the box office. Across the Universe cost $45 million to make, but only made about $30 million.

While many critics and the remaining Beatles themselves liked Across the Universe and audiences in 2007 apparently avoided the film, the question for many Beatles fan may be, "What does the average Beatles fan think of the film?"  I can't speak for every single Beatles fan, but for myself I can say that I have always enjoyed Across the Universe. That having been said, it is definitely a film where spectacle is more important than story. Indeed, Across the Universe has some truly astounding visuals. Possibly the best sequence in the film is one built around "Happiness is a Warm Gun", which features Salma Hayek times five as a nurse in what can be described a surreal hybrid between Thirties musical production numbers and James Bond title sequences. Another great sequence is one using "She's So Heavy (I Want You)", which is set at an Army induction centre and features a menacing Uncle Sam poster, robotic sergeants, and an assembly-line induction process.  The most bizarre musical sequence in the film 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)....

Of course, the appearance of what may or may not be Blue Meanies in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" points to one way Beatles fans will enjoy the film; quite simply it has literally dozens of references to The Beatles, both visual and verbal. Indeed, most of the major characters' names are derived from Beatles songs (Lucy, Jude, Max, Sadie, et. al.). Much of the fun of watching Across the Universe is then looking for the many references to The Beatles scattered throughout the movie.

Besides its rather amazing visuals, the strongest part of Across the Universe is its music. The two leads (Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood) both 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 some fantastic visuals and the music is quite good (I think most Beatles fans would appreciate it), it is not particularly strong with regards to its story.  Its plot is not particularly cohesive, often jumping from one scene to another and even including a scene featuring the Detroit riot of 1967 that  has nothing whatsoever to do with the characters or the plot. And while the entire cast gives good performances, the only truly well developed characters are Jude, Lucy, and Lucy's brother Max. As good as the entire cast's performances are, none of them can really overcome what little the script gave them with which to work.

Despite the deficiencies of the script (which are noticeable), in the end Across the Universe is still a very enjoyable film, particularly for Beatles fans. It is ultimately a movie where its visuals and its music matter much more than its plot, and both the visuals and the music are particularly strong.I rather suspect many people will be so overpowered by the film's visuals and songs that they will then ignore the weaknesses of the story. Quite unlike Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), Across the Universe is a worthy addition to movies inspired by the songs of The Beatles, one that I think will be enjoyed for years to come. 


KC said...

I remember really liking this film and even downloading some of the songs. After reading your review though, I realize I've forgotten a lot about it! Guess I'm going to have to watch it again. Nice review.

Steve Bailey said...

Great critique! I think you gave a very fair assessment of the movie -- flawed, but certainly not without its merits. Very well done!