Saturday, 1 September 2012

Review: Across the Universe

Across the Universe (2007, trailer) is what you get when you cross the Beatles’ music with the maniac director who spent $80 million to make the Broadway musical ‘Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’.

Jim Sturgess is [Hey] Jude, a Liverpudlian shipyard worker who ends up in America to search for his long-estranged father, who turns out to be a janitor at Princeton. They don’t really reconnect, but on campus he befriends a student, Max[well?] (Joe Anderson).

Jude goes to Max’s for Thanksgiving, and we meet Max’s sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Jude falls for Lucy, which we know because he sings ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ in a Big Lebowski-aping bowling sequence.

Over the line.

Instead of going back to college, all three move to New York City and move in with [Sexy] Sadie, a nightclub singer. Jude adopts a dopey McCartney mullet and enters hippiedom. He becomes a protest-zine artist, while Max gets by as a cab driver.

At this point, the plot gets pretty arbitrary. The characters all drive places together, protest and do other typically hippie-ish things.

My Take

Based on this summary, it might sound like the movie is about the Sixties. Well, The Vietnam War is featured, but as far as the movie’s concerned, it’s just a Cause that the characters are Against. Civil rights is brought up…using the obligatory ‘I Have a Dream’ clip. Instead of providing historical details which could better explain the characters’ actions and motivations (and provide a more immersive period context), it gives us a slideshow of superficial, stock Sixties iconography: draft-dodging, hitchhiking, beaded curtains, psychedelic tie-dye, Volkswagen hippie vans, bell-bottoms.

Oh look, it’s the Sixties!

Within the first minute of the film we hear both ‘Girl’ (from Rubber Soul, 1965) and ‘Helter Skelter’ (The Beatles, ’68). This might sound like nitpicking, but I believe that mixing up the chronology of the music from the band’s eight-year tenure and massive musical progression just reinforces the lazy Sixties iconography; it seems to me to imply that the Beatles were just Some Band from the era who came out with a bunch of songs in no particular order.

I mentioned before that the characters are insipid. They all have very basic types, and everything that is said by and between them exists solely to indicate and reinforce these types: Jude compliments Lucy on her good teeth, and adds that women where he comes from have nasty teeth, sticking out everywhere. ‘You ever heard of braces?’ she asks, to which he replies: ‘We use them to keep our trousers up’. He’s from England, geddit?

Lucy is a revolutionary all for The Cause, as she repeatedly tells us, using such great lines as ‘They should be radical. You should be radical, we should all be radical!’ and ‘I would lie down in front of a tank if it would stop this war!’

Much of the dialogue sounds like empty, nonsensical aphorisms that people enter as their Facebook statuses in an attempt to sound 'deep': ‘Music’s the only thing that makes sense anymore. Play it loud enough, and you can keep the demons at bay.’ What?

The emotions of the characters are reverse-engineered from the mood of the songs in the soundtrack. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ plays, so the characters get depressed. Now they are angry – I can’t imagine who wouldn’t be, with ‘Revolution’ playing behind them. Lucy is especially volatile in her emotions; I can’t count the number of times I saw her pouting face shed a single tear.


So Across the Universe isn’t really about the Sixties. But it’s about the Beatles, right?

Again, not really. There are a couple of references that Beatles-heads such as myself can pick up on: John was abandoned by his mother, and Jude by his father. ‘Dear Prudence’ was written for a woman who isolated herself in a cabin in India; in Universe it is sung to encourage a character named Prudence to come out of seclusion in a closet (also, the closet serves as an obnoxious allusion to the character’s homosexuality.)

The other Beatles references are pretty brazen: a character climbs in through the bathroom window, and another remarks ‘she came in through the bathroom window.’ Does simply reading out song titles count as references?

I Saw Her Standing There and said ‘Honey Pie, let’s Come Together,’ and She Said She Said ‘You Can’t Do That’. Oh Darling, I thought there was Something between the Two Of Us.

Part of my interest in The Beatles comes from the sense of history; of a time when popular music was much more simple and direct than it is now. The guys themselves were not particularly attractive-looking, and their voices were by no means perfect.

The characters of Across the Universe, on the other hand, are presented through an impersonal and charmless modern-pop lens: everyone is super-attractive and spotless, and many scenes depend way too much on computer-generated graphics and environments, sometimes to the extent that they look like some kaleidoscopic version of outer space that the characters unconvincingly float around in.

The singing voices are heavily produced, and are auto-tuned to match the notes that the actors apparently couldn’t reach perfectly enough. Lucy sounds just like Avril Lavigne, Jude sings like he’s in a boy band. Also, for some weird reason, Sexy Sadie sounds exactly like the guy from Mötley Crüe.

I did enjoy three of the sequences. The ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ sequence has one of the terrified characters going through a nightmarish and menacingly choreographed military recruitment testing. The ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!’ sequences have great cameos; the former is sung by Bono in a Ken Kesey/Magical Mystery Tour-bus tribute, and the latter has English comedian Eddie Izzard bellowing the lyrics as a maniacal ringleader attracting spectators.

We’re gonna run out of kites at this rate.

I would have preferred to see a segmented series of figurative music videos of Beatles songs, but without the anemic plot Universe’s sequences are clothes-pegged on to.

I think there were missed opportunities: ‘Blackbird’ is included, but it accompanies a soppy love sequence instead of the civil rights bit, even though it is famously a civil rights song.

Later, ‘All You Need is Love’ is sung on top of a roof. The Beatles never sung that song on their actual rooftop performance, but the real performance of the song – in a big studio with a worldwide TV broadcast, a big band, extravagant outfits and a star-studded audience – is legendary.

Also, a Hendrix look- and sound-alike (Martin Luther McCoy) joins the cast and sings ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. In real life Hendrix had very little to do with the Beatles, but Eric Clapton actually did play lead guitar on that song's recording.

Instead of whatever the filmmakers contrived to go with the song’s somber tone, I feel they could have used it to tell part of the Beatles’ story: At the time of the making of the ‘white’ album, the cracks in the band were becoming increasingly visible. George specifically was frustrated about not being taken seriously as a creative force, and was anticipating the launch of his solo career.

Concurrently, Clapton was tormented by his attraction to George’s wife Pattie Boyd (Clapton’s feelings of love and pain were the inspiration of his 1970 album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs) All this turmoil could be dramatized by the acidic and bluesy tone of ‘Gently Weeps’.

Evidently, I want to see a musical about the actual band. And why not? The members each have very distinctive and well-known personalities, and together they have a colorful history that could be illustrated through their songs:

Love Me Do – the first song written by schoolboy-aged John and Paul; we could also see George’s famous guitar ‘audition’ in the second floor of a double-decker bus.

I Saw Her Standing There – the band cutting its teeth at the Cavern and in Hamburg, putting together its famous lineup, recording Please Please Me.

A Hard Day’s Night – ditching their leather greaser outfits for suits, making TV appearances, Beatlemania flaring up, making the A Hard Day’s Night film.

Drive My Car/Taxman – touring America, discovering drugs, evolving musically, George picking up his Indian influence, making the Help! film

Strawberry Fields Forever – John starring in the film How I Won the War in Germany, writing ‘Strawberry Fields’ in a fit of loneliness, depression and disillusionment in his unhappy marriage to his first wife Cynthia.

[various White Album tracks] - The band going to India to practice transcendental meditation, writing many songs - but individually, rather than as a unit.

Don’t Pass Me By – This Ringo song could illustrate his treasured vignette of feeling left out in the corrosive atmosphere of the 'white' album studio sessions, leaving the band and feeling unloved, and being welcomed back into Abbey Road studios, which were bedecked with flowers.

One After 909 –The bitter arguments that characterized the making of Let it Be (both the album and accompanying documentary) meant that the band had to finish, but the rooftop performance of ‘909’ is a heartfelt is throwback right back to the beginning of their career and earlier, happier times (look it up on YouTube – the fond smiles and knowing glances between John and Paul as they sing are priceless)

I think the filmmakers’ aim was to capture and translate the ‘spirit’ of the music, but if you want that kind of Beatles retrospective you could do a lot better by listening to ‘Beatles: Love’. Or, if you want to see the actual ‘60s, just watch the real Beatles movies; A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, and Yellow Submarine.

The Beatles’ music tells of a great progression and reflects the time in which it was made. Their music could be used to tell a great story, but it’s not Across the Universe.

Screengrabs: Across the Universe was produced by Revolution Studios, Gross Entertainment, Team Todd and Sound Film. The UK DVD was distributed by Columbia TriStar Home Video.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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