Across the Universe is something I had been waiting to see for awhile. I wanted to see it for the Beatles songs, but kept putting it off because I knew it was other people covering the Beatles…and I remembered Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The year was 1978 and a stinker of a movie starring the Bee Gees of all people wrecked some careers and marred a lot of great Beatles songs. Would this new movie do better?
Yes, and right from the start, with Jude (Jim Sturgess) on the beach singing the beginning of “Girl” more hauntingly that it’s ever been done before. I’m hooked. But then the movie does something odd. It cuts to an idealized American prom dance where the kids are dancing and singing to “Hold Me Tight.” Then it cuts to Jude again, in the Cavern Club in Liverpool, listening to the Beatles singing “Hold Me Tight” while his homely Liverpudlian girlfriend also sings “Hold Me Tight.” As any Beatles-phile could tell you (and only a Beatles-phile would know this, being lost on anyone else), if the Beatles are still performing in the Cavern Club, then it’s 1962 and there’s no way any Americans know that song yet. So, in this way we subtly (too subtly?) learn that none of the characters are singing Beatles songs in the movie – like the movie Moulin Rouge, we’re just interpreting their dialog through the medium of the Beatles music.
And most of the time those Beatles songs do sound very good. Evan Rachel Wood, who I watched grow up on the great TV show Once and Again (ironically, I had preferred as an actress the older girl who played Sela Ward’s daughter at the time, yet she’s the one who has since sank into obscurity) has a great voice and does justice to every song her voice touches, as does Sturgess. There is a phenomenal gospel-like rendition of “Let It Be.” Most of the rest of the supporting cast falters, not up to the material – including Bono, who sleepwalks through “I Am the Walrus.” Joe Cocker steps up to do what he does best, covering Beatles songs, and in this case “Come Together.” In an unusual and semi-successful move, British comedian Eddie Izzard (I had to look this guy up online to find out who he is!) sort-of recites “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” with plenty of ad-lib diversions. It is funny, but more bizarre than funny. Sometimes the movie monkeys too much with the music, like “Blackbird,” which Wood sings almost entirely without instruments. Well…there’s a reason that “Blackbird” is a classic and that is because the song is perfect as it is. The adage, “If it ain’t broke” should have been remembered here.
The assortment of songs is pretty diverse, ranging from beautiful ballads like “Something” to nasty bits like “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” This reflects the movie’s balanced view of the ‘60s, showing the good and the bad of that culture in those times. The songs give us some wonderful moments. I already mentioned the moving rendition of “Let It Be”, which becomes about race relations. There is also the scene when Sturgess is chanting the mantra, “Nothing’s gonna change my world,” in a futile attempt to stave off the riot going on around him. Some songs have curiously been stripped of their sexual meanings, like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which becomes about military indoctrination (and what a shocking scene when the Uncle Sam posters animate!), and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”, which becomes about broken soldiers (its sexiness restored by song’s end only to show how the soldiers have grown to love morphine). These new layers of meaning overlaid on familiar songs surprise and, more often than not, work.
Not that the movie is perfect. There is a lengthy subplot about Sadie and JoJo forming a band, falling in love, breaking up, and making up. I get that Sadie represents Janice Joplin and JoJo represents Jimmy Hendrix, but…why romantically link those two? And while it’s kind of nice to see other music from the ‘60s represented in this way, I don’t think Joplin and Hendrix represent the best alternatives to the Beatles the ‘60s had to offer. If we really have to have pseudo-cameos like this, I would have preferred a Dylan-like character being a mentor figure encountered in a coffee shop, or something like that. Worse is the subplot about Prudence, the lesbian hanger-on who brings absolutely nothing to the plot of the movie except to give the main characters a chance to show how accepting they are. She chews up about 20 minutes of screen time that could have been spent with Sturgess and/or Wood covering “missing” songs that would have fit so well, like “Yesterday” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” Lastly, while the surreal elements like people dressed as blue meanies work well during the pyschedelic scenes and I can accept that the dance numbers are never meant to be taken literally, there is just an overwhelming amount of surrealism here that grates after awhile. Does there have to be so many characters in masks? I got tired of trying to interpret what they all meant (my mother provided an interesting interpretation of the masked women dancing on water and falling into the water, dead, right before the Viet Nam scenes – she believes they represent the My Lai Massacre).
I had originally planned to give this movie a B+ based on my minor problems with it, but after I watched this with Megan, we found that days later we were still discussing the movie and singing the songs from it. It’s a movie that stays with you and keeps you thinking -- makes you re-evaluate the Beatles ouevre and what it can be re-interpreted to mean -- and that surely deserves an upgrade to an A-. Unlike Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the movie that could never take itself seriously, Across the Universe is a loving tribute to the Beatles and their times.
Lastly, I had recommended this movie to my mother and she loved it. Unlike me, who was born in 1971 and missed the wonderful ‘60s entirely, she could speak to me about the authenticity of the movie. Though she’s never seen New York City in person, she said that the psychedelic NYC of the movie accurately reflected the Minneapolis she had known back then. Across the Universe makes me wish I could have seen it.