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Listening Parties

Since, I dunno, Moulin Rouge or Chicago, big movie-musicals are back in. They come in two genres: adaptations of stage musicals, and those huge production pieces where they wedge pop music into flimsy plots. There are only two things you really need to know about Across the Universe:

  1. It’s a simple love story set in the mid-to-late ’60s, told almost entirely through limp cover versions of Beatles songs.
  2. The movie is OVER TWO HOURS LONG.
courtesy Across the Universe website 

No, seriously. I’d be suspicious already. “But,” you say, “the Beatles are pretty cool. Isn’t Sgt. Pepper’s supposed to be the best album ever or something?” Or maybe “Hey, I loved Moulin Rouge! And that was, like, over two hours.” Granted. I told myself the same thing, but by minute 120 of the film, I would have gladly brought Maxwell’s silver hammer down on my skull.

The movie’s runtime should tell you that it imagines itself as something of an epic. And since this is a movie that is supposed to somehow capture the spirit of the Beatles, it imagines it’s some crazy, psychedelic dream-epic. And visually it is. There’s some nifty, colorful numbers – “I’ve Just Seen a Face” in a seizure-inducing bowling alley! “I Want You (She’s so Heavy)” featuring giant dancing Uncle Sams (and just wait until you see who the aforementioned heavy “she” is)! Bono, Joe Cocker, Eddie Izzard, and huge, blue puppet thingies! “Because,” underwater, with a bunch of naked people! “Happiness is a Warm Gun” in a hospital ward with five Salma Hayeks! Evan Rachel Wood’s left tit! – but, oh, sorry. That was every entertaining point in the movie.

So the film has some truly interesting, entertaining visual moments. I’d estimate that the parts I mentioned took up, in sum, a little more than a sixth of the total runtime. But then it had to go and take up more time with what writer-director Julie Taymor (hey, remember Titus? Remember the stage version of The Lion King? That was her! Hey, give that woman her own movie!) felt could have been a plot. And characters. Who are named Jude. And Lucy. And Maxwell. And Sadie. And JoJo. And Prudence. (Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.) Are you getting tired already? Imagine sitting through two hours of this.

Never mind the fact that most of these supporting characters exist just to squeeze in more Beatles songs. Max (Joe Anderson) factors heavily into the plot, and isn’t a bad character to boot, but for being the only character whom I can even quasi-care about, he doesn’t get enough screen time to matter as much as he should. The other supporting characters are (in order of importance) Janis Joplin-lite, Diet Hendrix, and an Asian-American lesbian cheerleader (???). They do, I’ll be frank, absolutely nothing in the way of moving the plot. Mostly they just dance around while Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) inexplicably fall in love, then out of love, then – well, I won’t spoil the ending.

courtesy Across the Universe website 

It should be evident that a film whose plot is, without much complication, “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back again,” shouldn’t run more than 90 minutes. But the inherent problem in execution here is that the Beatles songs, no matter how creatively applied, can’t move the plot forward. Rock songs simply aren’t showtunes; the point is to keep hitting the chorus over and over. So either you end up with songs that break the flow of the plot for three-and-a-half minutes, immediately followed by a scene that tells you the point of the song in advancing the plot, or you just have songs that have nothing to do with the plot, but hey that character’s name is Prudence AND HEY WE JUST HAVE TO USE THAT IN THE MOVIE, DON’T WE?

For a film that runs this long, I’d expect at least to have a clear sense of the characters’ goals and motivations, but there’s too much song-exposition-song-exposition gearshifting that neither becomes clear, and we’re just taken along for the (protracted, circuitous) ride. There’s never sufficient reason for why the characters do the things they do, or say the ridiculous things they say. I can forgive that for a while, but – again – over two hours. That’s too long to watch characters I never get to know or care about in the least. You’d also expect that the characters arc in some way; they don’t, except for maybe Lucy who goes from goodie-goodie to drugged-out activist. I think, though, that this dynamic was included only because it was absolutely necessary for the plot to move forward (boy has to lose girl somehow) and because drugged-out activists get to show their left tits on screen and more horny teenage boys pay for tickets because how often do you get to see a boob in a PG-13 movie? The main shift from the beginning to the end of the movie seems to involve the Zeitgeist rather than the characters: We’ve moved from suburban, mid-Sixties Americana through psychedelia onto “Revolution.” Again, it’s a necessary shift, because otherwise you have a movie that can only cover a third of the Beatles’ catalog.

Except this movie has about as much to do with Vietnam and social change as the Beatles themselves did (hint: not much). The counterculture is supposed to be a big mover in the plot, and I think it represents the conflict between Lucy and Jude. She represents, I dunno, the world or something, obsessed with radicalism and violence; he’s the Beatles’ doppelganger, preaching art and love and what Lucy eventually scorns as “doodles and cartoons” (Watch the trailer so you know when to shout that phrase along with her). By the end, the film has planted itself against radicalism (I think the antagonist, Paco, turns out to be one of the Weathermen?) and, as it announces during a rooftop concert scene (head.hit.desk), “All You Need is Love.” And that’s the end of the movie.

Really, though? The film is called Across the Universe, but that song gets buried in some back-and-forth with “Helter Skelter” during the movie’s Big Uh-Oh. And the protagonist’s “Hey Jude,” which scores what should be a climactic scene, throws the best part (the na-na-na’s) to the wayside for a lame dude-drums-on-trashcans sequence. It’s the most egregious moment of the movie shitting all over its determination to be an epic. Epics, we should remember, must be more than ambitious; they have to be focused and entertaining, too.

Instead of an epic, we’re treated to a two-hour vanity piece as bloated and inert as films like Yellow Submarine. Or, worse, The Bee Gees’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Well, maybe that was the point?


Gadfly's picture

I agree with Adam’s remark in paragraph six regarding Zeitgeist. This story is an artist’s parable, in which the depth of individual characters is less important than the broader patterns they illustrate. As such, I think it is excellent.

Until I saw this movie, I would never have imagined that a rock musical hybrid of Forrest Gump and Doctor Zhivago was possible. Julie Taymor and her company have pulled it off, and I salute them both for their accomplishment and their courage. For all the older music I love, for all the hippies I’ve known, I never truly grokked the sixties until I rented this movie.

Yes, Jude is clearly a composite Beatle, but his function is the same as that of Yuri Zhivago: to bear the torches of love, life and creativity in a world going dark with madness. He is not perfect, particularly in the way he handles love, which in my view makes him very human. His “motivation” or “goal” changes throughout the film: in the first place it is to find himself and his history, which he does through a classic “walkabout” process. In the second place it is to succeed in love and art, which proves much harder and tells us a lot about the Vietnam era.

As for Lucy and Max: I KNOW these people (or at least their 21st century twins) in person. Okay, maybe we don’t get to see their diaries or their MySpace blogs or hear them rant about some alleged trauma from when they were six. So what? To tell me they lack depth is like saying the sky is yellow or the world is square.

Regarding “lite” musician characters, they are composite characters of the sort that film writers have been using since forever to save on time, dialog and flow interruption. Sure, it’s not exactly genuine, but how many of us would call The Great Escape a bad film? What matters are the Gestalt and the basic chronology.

I will certainly agree that Prudence seems underdeveloped, but she’s also one of those characters who could carry an entire film if they had filled her out. I believe it would not have been as good a film without her (or does anybody really think the living-room-morphing-to-sky over a I-IV D-Major drone bit isn’t beautiful?)

Regarding musical alteration, on the whole it was done very well and with the overall Zeitgeist in mind. The best example I’ve caught so far is Let It Be, in which the final cadence is eliminated to reinforce the point that the world has become a sadder and less certain place. Adam complains about them cutting some of the “na-na-na’s” from Hey Jude. Frankly, in my opinion as a former Oldies DJ, there were too many of them to begin with (I usually had to fade them out). As for the drum sequence, it manifests a subjective truth many of us have experienced: a place you’ve lived will often look its best when you’re about to leave it behind.

Not everyone has to like musicals, and not every musical can live up to literary formulas. Nevertheless, Across the Universe is as good a work of art as I have ever seen. To knock it according to literary standards and plot formulas is like using algebra to write a poem. As they say in Dead Poets Society, “I don’t hear enough RIP!”

Anonymous's picture

Julie Taymor says what?