Woke up, got out of bed. Dragged a comb across my head. Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
and looking at the blog I noticed I was late (heah, heah, heah, heah) in posting a review of Julie Taymor’s sadly insipid karaoke-musical Across the Universe. Ever since Ms. Quarles’ fourth-grade class in Florence, SC spent a full week on the Beatles — discussing lyrics, watching A Hard Day’s Night, etc. — they’ve been a part of my mental landscape. (We also did a week on Edgar Allan Poe — that had more morbid ramifications on my young brain.) In fact, the Beatles were the first musical group I remember being cognizant of. (Hmm, upon further reflection, that’s not entirely true: It seems like ABBA got some run in the house when I was a pre-schooler — I remember my brother getting this record for Christmas one year…You’ll have to ask him if that had anything to do wih him marrying a Swedish gal.) At any rate, from that fateful week of musical schooling to about eighth grade, when I discovered Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and Depeche Mode’s “Black Celebration” and anguished adolescence began in earnest, the Beatles were far and away my favorite musical act, (In fact, I was justifiably eviscerated by friends and foes alike for crooning “Yesterday” in the seventh grade talent show — before my voice had broke — later prompting the waggish schoolyard riposte: “Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be…ever since that vasectomy…”)
But, really, there’s no point in going on trying to prove my Beatles bona fides. The fact of the matter is, everyone loves the Fab Four in their own way (and those few who don’t are either too cool for school or just certifiable Blue Meanies.) It’s hard to think of any band that’s as universally beloved as the boys from Liverpool…which is one reason why Across the Universe seems like such a misfire. Given Julie Taymor’s considerable talent, on display in Frida and elsewhere, and the ubiquitous fondness for the music she gets to play with, how did the final product end up as tepid and uninspired as what we’ve got here? Perhaps it’s a fault of the karaoke-musical genre — I didn’t much care for Twyla Tharp’s riff on Bob Dylan either. But really. Surely a band as influential and inspired as the Beatles deserve something better than a remake of Rent with better music. Unless you’re really a completist on matters Liverpudlian, or your iPod’s broken or something, I wouldn’t recommend crossing the street to see this, much less venturing across the universe.
“Is there anybody going to listen to my story, all about the girl who came to stay?” So pleads Jude (Jim Sturgess, looking like Paul with a hint of George) from the bleak gray oceanfront of what could only be North England. You see, before he started quoting Rubber Soul for effect, Jude was a working-class stiff in Liverpool who, on a youthful journey of self-discovery, set out for the green fields of Princeton University to find and confront his absent WWII GI father. Once arriving at the Ivory Tower, he reunites with dear old Dad, and, more importantly, meets up with the fun-loving, dissolute Max (Joe Anderson), who — in the natural manner of all Ivy League undergrads — spends his nights playing drunken golf with his father’s borrowed set of “silver hammers.” But here’s the important point: Max happens to have a little sister with kaleidoscope eyes, the lovely Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), and — as you can probably guess — as soon as Jude sees her standing there, he’s got to get her into his life. In any case, Max drops out of college, and he and Jude — and ultimately, Lucy — procure tickets to ride to the bohemian paradise of New York City, whereupon they fall in with sultry singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs, a.k.a. Janis Joplin), guitar hero JoJo (Martin Luther, a.k.a. Jimi Hendrix), and crush-heavy misfit Prudence (T.V. Carpio, who, in one of many Beatles puns throughout, first comes in through the bathroom window.) All is groovy in East Village Bohemia, for awhile…but, there’s a war going on, man, and all things must pass. Soon enough the Magical Mystery Tour has come to an abrupt halt: Max is drafted, Prudence tunes out, Sadie and Jojo break up the band (with nary a Yoko in sight), and Lucy discovers SDS…leaving Jude once again a loser in Liverpool. But, hey Jude, don’t let us down. You have found her, now go and get her…
So, as you can see, the movie is basically just a bunch of Beatles songs assembled in a sort of narrative order. That’s fine — that’s what we were all expecting, and the Beatles obviously have a lot of great tunes to work with. But, while there are a few nice visual flourishes at times, more often than not, Across the Universe turns gold into lead: It tries to be transporting, but ends up feeling forced. Part of the problem — for me at least — is the rather pedestrian choices made, of which the Lower East Side Rent angle is only one. Obviously, I enjoy American history, or I wouldn’t do what it is I do. But, frankly, the Forrest Gumpian, TV miniseriesish “Summer of Love derailed in the jungles of Vietnam” trope has gotten really, really old over the past few years. Can we please find some other period in American history to fetishize, or find some way to tell this story differently? In all honesty, the hackneyed “Paradise Lost” version of the Sixties presented here has become as wheezy a historical contrivance as “The Greatest Generation.” (And is there a lazier way to string together a bunch of Beatles songs than “the Sixties experience”? Are they that bound up with their time? Even Tharp’s botched Dylanpalooza had its own traveling circus conceit.)
And, speaking of wheezy contrivances, I know I’m probably going to be an army of one on this, but oh well, go ahead and crucify me: I’m so deadly sick of the tired rom-com subgenre whereby our hero/ine does or says something irredeemably stupid in the second act of a movie and loses the object of his/her affection, but then goes all out in the third act with some zany, fearless, and/or bravura romantic display and all is forgiven. You see it all the time, and does life ever really work out like this? Um, no. Yes, I know it’s a trope that’s as old as the hills, but it is totally and utterly played out. (Offhand, I can think of only Annie Hall and maybe The Science of Sleep as movies that show this type of third-act Hail Mary blowing up in the protagonist’s face.) I fully realize that a happy-go-lucky musical based on Beatles tunes may not be the appropriate film to make this stand, but screw it — I’ve reached my tipping point. This bird has flown, Jude, so next time hide your love away and cry instead. (And, Ms. Taymor, what with all the Beatles characters here, where’s Eleanor?)
Even notwithstanding my more curmudgeonly issues, though, Across the Universe takes some missteps along the way. “Let it Be” makes for a lovely gospel rendition, but it’s just about the worst advice you can imagine as a civil rights anthem. And perhaps I’m living easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all I see, but the “bleeding fruit” presentation of “Strawberry Fields Forever” here seemed almost completely wrong to me. But, hey, at least those two songs made an impression. Most of the tunes here never even get that far: Usually played deadly earnest and mostly stripped of any subversiveness therein, the songs as sung by the lead actors here tend to be flat, uninspired, and virtually interchangeable. The only way to tell them apart is in the very occasionally striking visual flourishes, from the myriad of Salma Hayek-y nurses present for “Happiness is a Warm Gun” to the teen-dream Bowlmor lanes conceit of I’ve Just Seen a Face” (which isn’t even the best musical number ever set in a bowling alley — that still goes to Kenny Rogers’ “I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In” from The Big Lebowski.) Indeed, the trippy visuals often overshadow the bland versions of the songs. The eeriest image in Universe may have been Taymor’s weird Jungian bent on the famous Kim Phuc photo, but I’ll be damned if I know what it was in there for or remember what song it was in reference to.)
As for the musical guests, Eddie Izzard all but sleepwalks his way through a pained version of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and U2’s Bono shows up midway to embarrass himself as a Ken Kesey-type character. This AICN comment nailed it: Bono sings “I am the Walrus” as if it’s “MLK” or “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” like it’s the most important thing ever written. He’s meant to be ironic, I guess, but he can’t seem to get past his own vanity. But, to be fair, one musician here does ring true: In fact, almost everything that’s wrong with Across the Universe is made manifest by his fifteen-second cameo. Joe Cocker is partially famous for his blistering rendition of “With a Little Help From of My Friends” at Woodstock,” and, as a homeless guy here, he imbues his one verse of “Come Together” with all the heartfelt passion and hard-fought wisdom he brought to that earlier performance. (After it happened, the audience at my showing spontaneously applauded.) Don’t let him be misunderstood: Cocker makes clear these songs mean as much to him as they do to us. He’s the only one here able to strip away the saccharine, shrink-wrapped Rent-lite blandness of this whole enterprise and, at least for a moment, do the Beatles proud.