There's this great movie about the turbulent sixties, that really captures the tension between the establishment and the youth culture, that highlights the changing relationship between the races and the sexes, all to an amazing rock-pop score.
There's nothing Julie Taymor's new film, featuring a song cycle from the Beatles catalog, wants more than to be the seminal musing on the Vietnam Era. And you'd think - I'd think, anyway - that armed with that music and what are, really some amazing gifts for visualizing and staging, Taymor would be able to craft a really strong, personalized take on the material. Instead, what we get is a largely incoherent, awfully joyless exercise full of visually stunning elements that never quite go anywhere. Or perhaps more accurately, they keep moving, just in circles.
And as they say, Let The Sunshine In.
I'm not going to claim to be a big fan of the Beatles. I like them well enough, especially the early material; but the forays into psychedlia and the accompanying pretentiousness of their later "superstar" years has always been a bit much for me. Across the Universe draws primarily from these later works - I believe, from what I heard, that it's a lot of the White Album, Sgt. Pepper's, Abbey Road and Let It Be. But the score isn't the problem; indeed, the musical elements may be the one thing Taymor gets right without equivocation. These are well sung, well arranged versions that in most cases make the material seem remarkably fresh.
Which is not to say they are similarly well visualized. Taymor ties the song together with, I don't know how else to say it, large chunks of the plot of Hair. That speaks, partly to the universality of Hair, and its role as a sixties archetype. Still, I expected more. The story starts when Jude (remember, some songs need particular names to work in this) travels from Liverpool to Princeton to meet the World War II vet who is his unknowing father, and a maintenance man at the University. During their awkward reunion, Jude meets Max, a slacker student from a prominent Ohio family. By Thanksgiving, Jude and Max have become fast friends, and Jude joins Max for a tense dinner of WASP angst ("you don't understand me, or my generation!") where he also meets Max's sister Lucy. Max announces that he's dropping out and Max and Jude head to New York, where they crash in an East Village apartment with Sadie (as in Sexy) and a bunch of others, including one of Lucy's old friends from high school, Prudence, who comes in through the bathroom window (no, she does it, and then they say it).
But wait, there's more - Max winds up getting drafted (his college career being his only protection from the draft), and the kids wind up experimenting with drugs, and casual sex. Lucy becomes an antiwar activist, and Jude becomes an artist of remarkable skill, given that he appears to have had absolutely no training ever. And eventually the sixties get real bad and the war kills a lot of people, but Max and Jude and Lucy are reunited on a West Village rooftop when Sadie sings All You Need Is Love. Well of course, all we need is love - but that could have been settled a good hour before it happens, and a lot of wasted time spared. After being hectored for over an hour that problem with the anti-Vietnam War effort is that people aren't sufficiently committed... Lucy stops being committed and decides she'd rather have a boyfriend.
Probably the biggest, and most jarring, problem is that Taymor, by virtue of her plot, can't keep the Beatles songs chronological. Thus Let It Be shows up very early, while earlier material shows up rather late, and it undermines the emotional journey that's in the Beatles catalog. Moreover, odd stagings of songs, particularly Come Together and I am The Walrus (not to mention a bizarre Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite), does nothing to clear up their muddy, psychedelic era lyrics.
Mostly, though, Taymor is hamstrung by the fact that the Vietnam era is not an up story; I don't mean that musicals have to be cheerful or only fun shows work, but this is grim material made grimmer by the fact that the Beatles themselves were confounded by the tensions of the sixties, large and small. This movie goes to some especially dark places, and can't really seem to find its way out. But the songs don't make natural fits in all places - turning Happiness Is A Warm Gun into a morphine metaphor just underlines how little the Beatles had to do with the heroin culture; they were not the band that wanted to go through the sixties anesthetized. Nor does I Want You make a good confrontation song between Max and his draft board, a reminder that protest for the Beatles was cerebral, while matters like getting a girl were serious business.
Indeed the movie fails by trying to take on too much and painting on too broad a canvas. The best moments in Across the Universe are its intimate ones - the palpable sense of individual loss that fuels the gospel tinged, funereal take on Let It Be, or the moments - often away from the sings - when these characters are less didactic symbols of the War movement, and actual characters whose interpersonal relationships drive the story.
Taymor's theater experience continues to pay off most in her dazzling visuals, and the uses of puppetry and costuming (not to mention some stunning animated sequences) all pay off handsomely... but mostly as reminders of the lavishness and creativity that went into dreaming up this project. The film's self-satisfaction, its refusal, often, to do little more than tease with how many spot-the-Beatles references you catch is frustrating. And its script, which can seem at many points to be little more than that high school humor magazine article written only in song titles (you know, that one everybody did) is not much help. The film breathes with the self importance of a baby boom generation that prides itself on ending Vietnam, yet tells story after story of characters who really didn't, whose experiences were really buffeted by circumstances beyond their control, and lives that were far more focused on personal desires more than they like to admit. This would be a better film if it were less about saving the world and simply about saving these characters, whose likability in the face of personal flaws is remarkable.
But again... that film is Hair. The one that found, in the passion and anger, and spiit of the sixties a way to tell a story that didn't ignore the pain but channeled it towards something more. Instead Across the Universe, mines the downside of Strawberry Fields, reminding us - me, anyway - that it's "let me take you down" to those fields, not up. It's interesting to realize that the Beatles escapist psychedelia is darker than one first thought... but it's not much fun. I wanted to like Across the Universe. Instead, I feel like I should scour Amazon for an old favorite.