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Across the Decades

October 4th, 2007 (06:52 pm)
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© 2007 D. Gordon

The Beatles and me, we go way back. I remember being four (back when dinosaurs ruled the earth and there was no widespread cable or home video) and my father turning off the annual network broadcast of A Hard Day's Night. They've definitely formed some of my basic musical knowldge, and I even have a few very (very) vague memories of events that happened while they were together. Always a source of positive memories in my life.

However, most Beatles-centric tribute efforts haven't faired so well. There was the Cirque du Soleil thing (which relatively speaking wasn't supposed to be bad), there's the John and Yoko TV special, there's the Broadway show, there's the Sargent Pepper movie - a lot of things just haven't been very good. It's quite possible that the only thing that has worked was Anthology. But whenever efforts stray from the music, it ends up pretty cringe-inducing.

My exposure to Julie Taymor has been much more limited. She's been involved in a number of projects, but I've only seen Titus (on a bad night, under less than optimal conditions). However, from The Lion King to Frida, I've heard Big Things about her.

So Liverpool meets Taymor in Across the Universe. Kinda against my instincts, and I'm not expecting perfection (heck, not expecting much), but there's always the music and it should at least look good...

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...and that's what I got.


First of all, there are mostly very good - and some downright astounding - visuals. The action around "I Am the Walrus" is just as trippy as the song demands. "Happiness is a Warm Gun" becomes a very frank indictment of the Vietnam War. And I never expected to see a strawberry bleed. Taymor's musical roots show at times: Jude, the hero of our story (played by Jim Sturgess with more than a passing resemblance to Paul McCartney) enters New York among the syncopated briefcased hordes; Max, friend to Jude and brother of Lucy (played by Joe Anderson), is inducted into the Army to in-your-face dance segments crafted around "I Want You / She's So Heavy." The CGI never overwhelms the visuals, and much of the psychedelia is true to the period. There were points where what played out on screen likely would have matched images from the Sixties if the technical tools had been available.



Then, there's the music: much more appropriate than I had expected. Given that the purpose of the movie was to tell a story using the Beatles' songs, and the ingenious way that several of them had their traditional "meanings" completely transformed, Taymor did good. To take Roger Ebert's example: after hearing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" for forty years as a happy song, switching it to a lament, a dirge by an outsider, you start to see some of the genius going on. (It also demonstrates how good the songs were to begin with.) The change is almost as fresh as hearing the songs when they were first released. That can be kinda fascinating.

Now if Taymor had been able to sustain that level of genius, this movie would have been the accomplishment she was looking for. Instead, some sections are stuffed with too many snippets of tunes, while others - and there's one particularly noticeable stretch in the middle - are barren. Inconsistent is the world, although I do give Taymor credit for what good does appear on screen.

The cast is mostly relatively unknown actors, most of whom are also new to singing. They acquit themselves more than adequately, although they don't reach any true brilliance. There's are times that Jim Sturgess's voice, for example, is the right touch, and other times where his hoarse tones don't work. Sadie (Dana Fuchs), aka Janis Joplin Stand-in, is brassy but a little underused. (Think about it: brassy, Beatles. Not quite.) Of the main cast, Joe Anderson fares best, especially during the amazing "Happiness is a Warm Gun" sequence. There are others who do well; Joe Cocker and Bono's cameos are treats. And Eddie Izzard... I like Eddie Izzard. I really do. But Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite channeling Austin Powers in a spoken song has too many sharp corners. In addition, the visuals for that segment just jar compared to the rest of the movie. And, maybe the saddest: beyond reintroducing a character who'd wandered off earlier, the segment doesn't do a whole lot. Eddie, I love you, but you've got to go.

And that leads into the weakest part of the movie: the plot. It sped, then crawled; had fits and starts, then slooooowed down more than the world on Dr. Robert's magic punch. It's ostensibly a love story, with currents of the Vietnam War, race relations, domestic protests, and just plain life in the 1960s that shape that love story; but Taymor's inconsistent (there's that word again) in how those threads are used. There's one theme about race relations which starts off very strong with "Let It Be," then disappears. There's another thread about sexual rights which continues throughout the film but never completely integrates into the story (which is a shame, because that's the one that starts with the body blow of that rendition of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"). Kitschy bits like the characters' names, coming through the bathroom window, and having a rooftop concert don't take the place of a well-crafted narrative. Taymor needs someone who can write her a tight book and can firmly establish what the story's about and what it's meant to emphasize.

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Inconsistent is still the word, but this isn't the train wreck that some have described. Of the different Beatles-influenced projects that have appeared over time, this is definitely one of the better ones - warts and all. Go in with middling expectations (or, better yet, none), and you'll see a picture that's definitely worth seeing.

One final note: I think that reaction to this movie is definitely colored by the viewer's knowledge of the Beatles. I recently saw someone post that they were listening to 'Mrs. Robinson' - by The Beatles. (ouch!) I don't fault her so much for doing that, but it's not a mistake that anyone familiar with the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel would have made at one point in time. If there's that kind of confusion over and disconnect from the Beatles themselves, I'm not sure that someone who could make that mistake would really get some of the things going on in the movie.