Sunday, October 14, 2007
Across the Universe
Years ago, I boarded a double-decker bus in Liverpool, England, for the Beatles tour. We went down Penny Lane, stopped at Strawberry Field and saw the neighborhoods where John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison grew up.
This afternoon, I took filmmaker Julie Taymor's Beatles tour in "Across the Universe." It begins in the same place as the bus tour, the Liverpool waterfront, where dockworker Jude, played by with Jim Sturgess, is about to say goodbye to his girlfriend and head to America in search of the father he's never met. (Sturgess, with his brown eyes, shaggy hair and cute smile perfectly evokes Paul McCartney's sweetness, with a touch of John Lennon's artistic sensibilities and working class hero).
Jude hooks up with Max, played by Joe Anderson, a soon-to-be college dropout, and Max's sister, Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Wood. They all end up living in Greenwich Village with an assortment of other characters familiar to anyone who's familiar with the Beatles: JoJo, Sadie and Prudence, who comes in through a bathroom window.
The story follows Jude's development as an artist, Max preparing to go to Vietnam, Lucy's growing involvement with the antiwar movement, and JoJo and Sadie's musical careers. It's all set against the backdrop of protest and psychedelia and some imaginative interpretations of Beatles songs that clearly have a lot to do with Taymor's interest in folklore, masks and puppetry.
"Across the Universe" works best when it imbues Beatles classics with poignancy or a bit of wimsy, like Jude's tender "All My Loving" as he says goodbye to his girlfriend before leaving for America, or Max and his frat brothers making their way across campus after a night of carousing to "A Little Help From My Friends." The latter is so artfully choreographed that I thought to myself, "Julie Taymor should direct a Broadway musical!" Of course, she has!
The songs I enjoyed most were the ones grounded in reality. Some of the film's hippie, trippy moments don't work quite as well for me, like Taymor's dreamlike interpretation of "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite." They were interesting to look at, but I was kind of bored by them. And sometimes, in my humble opinion, her imagery can be heavy-handed or flat out wrong, like when "Strawberry Fields" morphs into bloody scenes of war. Sorry, but not everything is a Vietnam allegory.
I'm especially incensed by what Taymor does to "Strawberry Fields." The real Strawberry Field was a Salvation Army children's home where a young John Lennon played and attended a garden party each year. It's also the name of a memorial built in his honor in Central Park. Associating it with violence seems to me an offense to Lennon's memory.
Taymor ties the Beatles music closely to the antiwar movement - the rallies, the student protests, radical groups like the Weathermen. But that's a different movie - requiring a different soundtrack. The Beatles' music was among the least political of the decade. There's nothing from the Fab Four that comes close to Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son," Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio" as a criticism of America's growing involvement in Southeast Asia.
The Beatles wrote catchy pop tunes and intensely personal ballads about love and loss. I enjoyed "Across the Universe" best as a love story between Jude's working-class British lad and Lucy's upper-class American suburban girl. (Kind of like Paul and Linda!) In those tender moments, Taymor makes those songs come alive in a new way, and evokes what they meant in an era when people believed that love is all you need.