25 April, 2008

I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together

So here’s the thing.

I see that the film Across The Universe was released last week – and is currently showing (in Wellington) at the Embassy no less. This is very convenient, since I was already planning on writing a post about the film. You see, Across The Universe was the second of the World Cinema Showcase films I saw the other weekend and, like In The Shadow Of The Moon, I keep returning to the film. My feelings about the film are very complicated. On the one hand, I really did enjoy it, and definitely recommend it. On the other hand, it has some serious flaws that are difficult to overcome.

The film is about a bunch of friends in the 1960s. The main character, a Liverpudlian named Jude, travels to the USA to meet his father, an American who had been stationed in the UK during the war. While there he meets a student called Maxwell, falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy, and moves to New York where they live in a shared apartment with a sexy singer named Sadie, where they live a bohemian lifestyle, coming through bathroom windows, using silver hammers, and going on a drug-fuelled bus tour. But then someone is drafted to Vietnam, others get caught up in the helter-skelter of the anti-war protest movement, relationships breakdown, before it is all resolved in a rooftop concert performance of “All You Need Is Love”.

Sorry, I forgot to mention that it’s a musical.

Sorry again, I forgot to mention that it’s a musical where all the songs are Beatles songs. I probably should have mentioned that.

I don’t know much about the Beatles. Most of the Beatles songs that I actually know are the ones we sang in primary and intermediate school – Yesterday, Hey Jude, Let It Be, and the like – plus obviously I know many other songs from use in movies or TV shows. I recognise the Beatles were an incredible band, and from what I know of their work they fully deserve their reputation as the greatest band ever, but for some reason I’ve never really listened to them. Although after seeing Across the Universe, I’ve started to change that.

But even I, with a very limited knowledge of theBeatles, was able to sit in the audience thinking “Lucy, Jude, Sadie, Maxwell (with a silver hammer)? Beatles reference. Someone refers to being 64? Beatles reference. Rooftop concert? Beatles reference.” And there were a lot of references I know I didn’t get – it was only the audience laughter that told me the line “She came through the bathroom window” was a song title. The film so often seems to be contrived to force in reference after reference, sometimes to the damage of the film. The story seems to meander into some plot developments just find a reason to sing certain songs. Characters appear and disappear according to who is needed for the songs – one character, Prudence, does sing a couple of songs early in the film, but her main role seems to be to justify the song “Dear Prudence”. She vanishes shortly after that sequence for quite a while, before they stumble across her having joined a circus(!) with Eddie Izzard as the ringleader (!), and presumably she comes back with them although we don’t really see her again until the finale.

And yet there are the songs. Great songs. Some are played in a very obvious literal way – “All My Loving” sung as a promise by Jude as he leaves, or “With A Little Help From My Friends” sung by Maxwell and his college mates. But at other times, the songs are radically reinvented – “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is normally a happy song about a nervous new relationship where even the promise of holding hands is a thrill, but the performance in the film makes the point that the song is heartbreakingly sad when you’re never going to be able to hold that hand. That was the moment, about 10 minutes into the film, that announced that, for all its faults, there was something special about the film. That they had attemptewd at least to find something new to say with these songs.

The film was directed by Julie Taymor, and while I missed her first two films (Titus and Frida), I knew to expect something visually (she does have a reputation for spectacle – she is, after all, most famous for directing the incredible stage version of The Lion King). But for the first half of the film, it all seems fairly straight-forward, understated, and realistic, as far as musicals go.

Until one character is drafted and sent to Vietnam to the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. Suddenly the film goes crazy – a giant Uncle Sam poster reaches down to grab the character, hundreds of recruits are caught in an elaborate medical examination/dance with hundreds of identical Army officers with Bruce Campbell-chins, before being sent on a conveyor belt to a 6-inch-high miniature Vietnamese jungle that they walk across dressed in their underwear while carrying the Statue of Liberty. And however you’re trying to visualise the sequence right now, it’s ten times more insane than whatever you’re imagining.

Suddenly, it’s all go for incredible spectacle. The acid-inspired bus tour of “I Am The Walrus”. The almost hand-drawn animated circus of Mr Kite. The surreal underwater love scene. A violent painting scene juxtaposed with Vietnam violence for “Strawberry Fields Forever”. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, sung by injured soldiers in a hospital tended by five sexy nurses that all look like Selma Hayek. It’s brilliant, spectacular, absurd, and one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences I have had in a long time.

Which makes it seem like I'm just responding to big absurd spectacle. And yet there are smaller moments to – “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, a small moment of reflection following Martin Luther King’s death. “Across the Universe” (certainly the most beautiful Beatles song I know of) accompanying a moment of pure regret and loss, before continuing on while a harsh “Helter-Skelter” is introduced to accompany a violent anti-war protest/riot. I've never really liked "Let It Be", but the song's accompaniment to a funeral is terribly moving. And while the final rooftop performance is almost too obvious a Beatles reference, even for this film, it still somehow works emotionally.

The main thing about the film is that it just is what it is. It's completely frustrating, but regularly achieves heights of brilliance and imagination that boggle the mind. It's absolutely incredible. I may feel compelled to qualify my recommendation of the film, warn people about the clunky story and inability to avoid a Beatles reference where one presents itself, but I still recommend the film wholeheartedly. I'm going to try and catch another screening while it's on at the cinema, and I'll probably even pick the Blu-Ray disc up so that I'm ready when I have a BD player and HDTV. Because this film will be stunning in high definition.

And, as far as Beatles musicals go, at least it has Joe Cocker and Bono, rather than the Bee Gees.


eT said...

Sounds intriguing - I missed it when it was out here.

I'm guessing they left out Why Don't We Do It In The Road? Might've strained the classification rating a bit. No! I now learn it was in there. Not one of Paul's masterworks, that one. Perhaps its lyrical efficiency could be applauded. Here they are in their entirety, for the sake of posterity:

"Why don't we do it in the road? (repeat x4)
No-one will be watching us
Why don't we do it in the road?"

Noel Coward, eat your heart out.

Matthew L said...

Indeed, as you seem to have discovered, they do sing Why Don't We Do It In The Road. Sadie performs it in a club. I remember sitting there surprised, thinking "Is that really a Beatles song?" The band is lucky everyting else they did is so damned good, because otherwise that song by itself would destroy their "greatest band ever" reputation.