Across the Universe

In honor of the film’s tenth anniversary, a repost from 2007.

Julie Taymor is one of my artistic heroes, and the Beatles are the Beatles, so I had high hopes going into this film. Of course, sometimes the best-seeming combinations can go horribly awry, so I also had a fair amount of trepidation.

Let me start by saying that the film was gorgeous both visually and aurally. It had moments in it that were as exhilarating as anything that I’ve ever seen on film. So the quibbles I have with it are minor. However it’s clearly not a film for everyone. You have to like musicals, be able to suspend disbelief, and yes, have a high tolerance for cheese. But the movie is a great ride for those with the ability to appreciate it.

While the film started in a way that was worrisomely close to the beginning of Baz Luhrmann’s pop-culture mashup Moulin Rouge, this film improved on its predecessor in many ways, not the least of which was the absence of Luhrmann’s hyperkinetic cuts. In addition, while both films are essentially long strings of music videos, Luhrmann’s film could have been reduced to two scenes without much loss (the deeply powerful “Tango De Roxanne”, and the hysterical “Like a Virgin”), while Taymor’s film had a much deeper pool of worthwhile numbers to pull from. Nevertheless, certain scenes managed to stand out: the slow-motion chaos of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, the Ivy-League fraternity antics of “With a Little Help From My Friends”, the heartbreaking beauty of “Let it Be”, the visual intensity of “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and most notably, the revelatory “I Want You/She’s So Heavy”.

I also loved, loved, loved, Joe Cocker’s triple performance during “Come Together” as a bum, a hippie and a pimp (welcoming Martin Luther McCoy’s Hendrix-like “Jo-Jo” to town), and while I was a little disappointed musically with Bono’s “I am the Walrus,” I thought his Jim Jones/Timothy Leary parody was terrific. Furthermore, the psychedelic visuals of his magic bus were so vivid I felt like I was having a hallucinogenic experience simply watching it in the theater.

In addition to these large joys, the film also contained many smaller pleasures with Taymor’s artistic signature written all over them –a sudden cut to a dizzying zoom down a flight of stairs, a ballet of death performed in the water at low tide, a work of modern art made from bleeding strawberries. So what are the quibbles?

Chiefly this. The film was filled with “set pieces”. Taymor is a theatrical person, but the trick is to make the theatrical seem real. At this point, we’ve all seen so many portraits of the 60’s, and they all have the exact same elements: the riots, the war, the protests, the assassinations, the drugs. Each one is presented here, beautifully painted, but ultimately unreal. The currency of Iraq lends a little extra resonance to the Vietnam themes, but Taymor largely failed, in my mind, to make the majority of the Vietnam scenes (with the exception of “I Want You”) seem like anything other than cut-and-pasted images.

As with the war, so too with the romance. The boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-regains-girl plot was more solid than I had anticipated going into the film, but that was a mixed blessing. As a paint-by-numbers romance, it grew tedious to me long before I was tired of the sounds or sights. Furthermore, the demands of the plot largely necessitated the selection of songs, resulting in the over-representation of the Beatles’ early and lesser work, to the neglect of some of their greatest numbers. In addition, the romance descended into kitchy cliché alarmingly often, most notably at the end.

Another minor complaint was two scenes where I felt Taymor played against her own strengths. Both “Dear Prudence” and “Mr. Kite” started strong, but soon acquired a needless burden of computer generated imagery. Taymor’s great talent is her ability to create magic with theatrical illusions, and choosing to replace that with the cheaper magic of CGI seemed like a baffling misstep.

A final question –as the coming together of two of the great Reconstructivist pioneers, Taymor and the Beatles, how did the film rate as reconstructivist art? In general, although it clearly had reconstructivist aspects, I would say it neither fully tried for nor met the designation. The use of iconic and transcontextual elements was present, of course, in the use of the Beatles’ catalog (as well as in the frequent throwaway references to Beatles’ songs never actually used in the score). The classic structure was also there in the romance. Where things fell short was in the nod to artifice –unless you count a musical by the sheer artificiality of the form –and the genuine emotional response –unless you were more moved by the romance than I was.

On the other hand, however, I would say the movie contained certain scenes that fully qualified. In particular, “I Want You/ She’s So Heavy” upped both the artifice and the emotion to fully reconstructivist levels, with the masked soldiers dancing around the conveyor belt, and the unforgettable image of half-naked army recruits struggling to carry the Statue of Liberty through the jungle.

Overall, a film best treated as a compilation of videos, but where some of the videos were truly brilliant.  Taken together, however, the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

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