Historical Circuit: Across the Universe (****)

With the success of juke box musicals, this new phenomenon of using pre-existing pop and rock tunes and plunking them into a story, building the plot around the music, films such as Mamma Mia! (2006) and Rock of Ages (2012) have enjoyed both popularity and solid box office success. I say new, however this type of film has been around for some time, as far back as the many Elvis Presley films and the work of Richard Lester and A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the animated Yellow Submarine (1968). Audiences seem to enjoy hearing these old tunes once again being belted out by movie stars, and in the right story, they conjure up memories often long dormant of our own pasts. Music is instant nostalgia, sweeping us at once into our  own past, allowing for a few moments to relive that time in our life when we were younger and had our lives ahead of us. Listening to Meryl Streep belt out The Winner Takes it All took me back to the late seventies, early eighties, and Susan, the girl I went with for much of high school and through a year of college finally outgrowing one another. We liked ABBA, call me crazy. I remember long summers in Port Perry, a small town in Ontario, Canada, walking the streets after work, getting ice cream, hearing the music from the cars, with that ABBA hit often on blaring into the night for all to hear. With that however comes the memory of the pain of the break up, as though I would never find someone like her, though I did of course, meeting the love of my life six years later. It is a moment in time I will never get back other than in memory and hearing the song again. The moment I hear Ben E. King sing Stand By Me, I am swept to my wedding day, as that was our first song, and defined the relationship I had with Sherri for twenty-five wonderful years. I cannot hearing it without tearing up.

With that in mind I took a look at Julie Taymor’s criminally under appreciated Across the Universe (2007) which was panned upon release despite, I think being a bold and often brilliant film, utilizing the music of the Beatles to tell the story of the sixties. Think of how the Beatles moved from being a superb pop band which invaded North America to developing a conscience and creating music that spoke of peace, drugs, and the war in Vet Nam? Built around a boy meets girl story, set against the back drop of the sixties, based on events from the decade, with the ghosts of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix as pseudo characters, the film was an audacious work that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to a rousing ovation at the Gala, only to meet with shrugs from the critics at the press screening. Ebert loved it, and the New York Times found much to admire in the film, and there were some fine notices, but for the most part, critics did not like the film, perhaps because they did not get it? I don’t know.

Now I like Taymor, I think she is a genius able to move easily between the stage and cinema, bringing some of each into all of her work. Titus (1999) was marvelously theatrical without ever losing sight of the fact it was a film, as Taymor jumped back and forth in time to tell the famous Shakespearean story of Titus Andronicus. By the same token her direction of the stunning stage play The Lion King is full of images that could be on a movie screen, striking the audience with their stunning beauty. She is a fearless filmmaker, willing to try creative things others would shy away from as excessive, or worry that it would simply not work. Taymor makes it work. Frida (2002), her excellent biography of artist Frida Kahlo was a visual wonder, and contained an excellent performance from Salma Hayek at her very best

Across the Universe (2007) was a stunning work, discovered on college and university campuses across North America. I remember being shocked to come home and find my teenaged daughter had the film on with a group of friends all of who were singing along to the Beatles tunes!!! Teenagers born in and around 1992 had found the Beatles!!!

To me Across the Universe (2007) was startling in its visual power, but more, incredible actually, was the fact others were singing songs made famous by the Beatles, the greatest rock band in the history of music, (eking past Springsteen and the E Street Band) and making them work. There was real emotion in the singing of the songs, and Taymor created  film that was one part personal journey through the sixties, another part generational, though admittedly some liberties were taken with facts. That said, she captured, rather brilliantly the essence of the sixties, that sense of enormous change, of taking risks with life, of the youth emerging and becoming a force to be reckoned with.

There is a truly nostalgic feeling to the film, a sense of a better time, a more innocent time, but sharp reminders that innocence was being lost all through the decade. Young men were dying in a silly war thousands miles away, on the streets of America in race riots, and the nation had lost faith in its leaders. The color of ones’ skin could mean real trouble, harassment and death even, and, indeed children were dying in the Detroit race riots, seen in the film in one of the most powerful and moving sequences.

The sixties were a time of youth being awakened to what was happening in what was going to be their world. They discovered their power in lashing back at the establishment through art, film, music, literature, theatre and poetry, protesting the war in Viet Nam, shouting angrily about the mistrust they had for their leaders, and developing a deep mistrust of anyone over thirty. This was the drug culture, the hippy culture, a time of the youth asking for peace, for all to live in peace and harmony.

Set against the backdrop of this turbulent time, is the story of two star-crossed lovers, Jude (Jim Sturgess) a young ship welder from Liverpool who works his way over to America in hopes of finding his American father, and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) a WASP girl who leaves the safety of her parents money and moves to New York City. Through Max (Joe Anderson), Lucy’s brother, she meets Jude, and they becomes friends, than lovers. Max and Jude become the greatest of friends, brothers essentially, the deep emotion of their relationship played out if the manner each sings Hey Jude towards the end of the film. As Jude struggles with his art, Lucy becomes more and more involved in the anti-war movement, which enrages Jude, who does not really understand it all and is jealous that the leader of the group might have a greater interest than she admits. He does seem to understand her intense worry for her brother Max, his best friend, (“I love the bugger”) a goofy kid now at war in Vet Nam, an experience that will leave him physically intact, but with deep emotional cars. With them on their journey through this time in history are the sexy Joplin-esque singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs), complete with hoarse Janis Joplin voice, and animatistic sex appeal, and the soulful Hendix-esque Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) a gifted guitarist who comes to New York after his younger brother is killed in the race riots in Detroit. LIke all classic love stories, boy will meet girl, boy will lose girl, and boy will get girl back, and thought it is a standard as tired as can be, the manner in which Taymor make sit happen, I found deeply moving. Call me sentimental, perhaps it was the nostalgia of the Beatles music that hit me hard, I don’t know, but the film, despite its deep sadness, moved me often to tears this time when I watched it a couple of days ago.

Hearing the songs of the Beatles sung by the cast is rather extraordinary because they capture the emotions within the songs to utter perfection, and in fact bring about deeper emotions one might not have thought of the first time. The pop tune I Wanna Hold Your Hand takes on a whole new feeling when you realize that Prudence (T.V. Carpo) is a young lesbian singing about the girl she loves and whose hand she will never be able to hold. Hey Jude becomes an anthem for courage in going after the girl you love, conquering the fears you feel, and going back to se if it works, having the immense to find love knowing full well you might get our heart-broken, but that the answer is worth it. Let It Be, begins with a child singing as he hides behind a car amidst the race riots, but ends with a church choir singing the song at that same child’s funeral, which is utterly breathtaking. One of the most powerful moments in the film was Strawberry Fields Forever in which Jude creates his art which is transformed into strawberry bombs being dropped on Viet Nam, exploding in red, the blood of a nation in his work. It is perhaps at that moment the film becomes so much more than merely a reflexive study of the sixties.

It is easy to romanticize the past, and it is done far too often in cinema. Realistically the sixties were a time of great political upheaval in the United States. A young President was assassinated in 1963, the leader of the Civil Rights movement shot four years later, than Robert Kennedy, the nation’s great hope was gunned down in 1968. The war in Viet Nam was escalated, there were no clear answers coming from the government, there was a counter-culture of left-wing politics, drugs, sex, and rock and roll. The Beatles are synonymous with the sixties, because their very evolution as a band mirrored the growing awareness of the American public about their country. While their early music was pop, possessed of an innocence, and remains such today, but became deeper through the decade, much more socially aware, speaking f the many injustices in society, and about the social issues of the time. The Beatles, in many ways, became the major musical voice of the sixties. So much so that, a film can easily be built around their songbook that is a trip through the decade and history itself. To say the film is a historical journey is not correct, but ACross the Universe (2007) captures the wonderful essence of the time, and that incredible, timeless music.

The actors do all of their own singing, which only adds to the magic, and they are all terrific. The biggest surprise for me was Jim Sturgess, who belts out the tunes of the fab four with absolute soul, bringing to the lyric all the love and pain that went into them. Mamma Mia (2006) was silly, Rock of Ages (2012) even sillier despite a commanding performance from Cruise, but Across the Universe (2007) was something very special that deserves to be re-visited and perhaps appreciated a great deal more.