I loved Julie Taylor's first movie, Titus. It was visually explosive and bizarre in a way that perfectly suited the violent and disturbing nature of the subject matter. Frida I liked, too, if not as much. So, I've waited a long time for Julie Taylor's third feature, Across the Universe. Because of her innovative and surprising directorial style, I've deliberately avoided reading anything about the movie, so that all I really knew is that she somehow incorporated Beatles songs, and characters from those songs (JoJo, Prudence, Sadie, Lucy, Max[well], and, of course Jude) into some sort of coherent plot.
I finally saw Across the Universe last night, and I am forced to admit publicly that I found it disappointing.
First, a quick plot summary, and a caveat. The story revolves primarily around three young people: Jude (a working class bloke from Liverpool who comes to America to find his absentee GI father), Lucy (a privileged blond American girl who, even in the 1960s looks like she'd be comfortable in a poodle skirt and saddle shoes), and Max (Lucy's unmotivated and unruly older brother). Lucy and Jude, as we might expect, fall in love, and it's glorious for a time. But when Max gets drafted and Lucy becomes increasingly active in the student movement, Jude gets depressed and jealous, and things begin to fall apart.
My caveat: for all my complaining, below, I did enjoy much of the movie--it's just that the first 20-30 minutes dug such a deep hole that the movie never quite managed to climb out. I found myself inwardly groaning a bit when a musical number would begin, and that's not at all how I expected to feel. Let me try to parse out why that was...
Although Across the Universe is not a re-make, it suffers from many of the maladies that affect remakes. I have this friend, Jeff, who used to be in a band. The Beatles were among his favorite musical groups ever, and they played an influential role in his own musical compositions. We used to talk, though, about how hard it was to record music that had the kind of life that Beatles recordings have. At one point, Jeff tried to get the kind of equipment the Beatles used--the same guitars, the same microphones, etc.--but there was an intangible quality, and no matter how much fun Jeff's band was to watch live, that Beatlesque quality was always a little lost in recording. The final sound was a little too slick, a little too canned, too tame.
That's exactly what I thought about Taymor's movie, and especially the musical numbers in it, which set the emotion tone for the film. It doesn't help that, for the first 20-30 minutes, the songs are sung by individual characters who the audience doesn't yet know or care about, and that they are typically sung more slowly than the originals. There's just a whole lot of screen time devoted to muted performances of these great songs.
Across the Universe also suffers from comparison to several other, more successful contemporary musical films. I think of Moulin Rouge! (2001), for instance. That movie took a nearly-dead genre--the larger-than-life Hollywood musical--and breathed new life into it, partly by filling it with massive, frenetic, fantastic productions of some often-unlikely pop hits. It was a stunning cinematic experience that had me pinned to my chair--I probably looked something like that guy in the Memorex commercials. It was great. But I also think of a more recent musical, this year's Once (2006) (a 2007 US release), which I liked for very different reasons. Once is understated and tender, and tells a love story that doesn't result in the romantic leads hooking up and mooning at each other for 2 hours. The musical numbers are stripped down, yet passionate and deeply involving.
Across the Universe seems to walk a middle path between the two. As I mentioned, many of the movie's first musical numbers are solo ventures, but the are slick and highly produced, and I found the actors' obvious lip-syncing to be off-putting and something of a let-down. One thing that both Moulin Rouge! and Once managed to do was to convince me that these characters really are singing to each other and/or truly pouring out the emotion that could no longer be contained inside their heads. In Across the Universe, the characters could do well to follow the old proverb, and I paraphrase: sing only if you can improve upon the silence.
Maybe Across the Universe is a re-make after all. If so, it's a remake of the 1979 musical, Hair. Like the earlier film, Across the Universe is a sort of coming of age story where a couple of innocents (Jude and Lucy, especially) encounter a big world in a turbulent time (Vietnam War). And, as in Hair, it's the least likely of the group of friends who ends up going off to war (in Across the Universe, it's Max). I'm not a huge fan of Hair, but it seemed edgier, more insane, and, well, it seemed to fit better with the times--it was released in 1979, after all. Part of me wondered, as I watched Across the Universe last night, if we really needed another Vietnam War movie, another Forrest Gump or Born on the 4th of July or whatever--musical or no.
What could have been done to make this movie better? Well, I'm glad you asked. You see, I love the idea of drawing the raw materials for a movie from the Beatles catalogue. But it seemed that the filmmakers here didn't go much beyond that original idea. Sometimes, the catalogue seemed to be dictating the movie's plot and situations, so that what we had was neither a straight-up tribute to the Beatles or a movie about characters with real lives. Here are some suggestions that I think might have produced a better final outcome:
- Do more, earlier, to introduce me to the characters without Beatles music. I think I was distracted in the early-going by the songs, so it was hard to pay attention to the new characters or to care much about them--after all, I already love the music, so when it's playing, it's easy to ignore these strangers on the screen and let my thoughts be absorbed by the old friends playing in my ears!
- Spend a lot of time and money improving the musical production. For the solo numbers, I need to hear and see the passion and emotion of these characters--why else would they need to sing? If they're not really feeling something deeply, they can just say it or twitch their faces or something. I want Bjork singing her soul out in Dancer in the Dark or Glen Hansard bursting blood vessels in his throught in Once. I think the best small number in the movie might have been "Come Together," which featured vocals by Joe Cocker--and that may be why it worked: it's really hard to smooth the edges off Joe Cocker's voice! In general you just can't make the music so slick and digital. The Beatles music needs analog production--it needs the warmth and crackle of time and distance. It needs the edges to be sharp and ragged and the highs and lows to be jarring, not smoothed like these god-awful new Nikes or just about every new car I see today. And the big numbers need to snap my head back against the theater chair--I need to feel the bass in my bowels, is basically what I'm saying.
- And the visuals. There were finally a few numbers later in the movie when I felt that Taylor finally let herself a little loose--"Strawberry Fields Forever" was one of these. I also kinda liked "Dear Prudence"--not a big huge production number, but one of the first times in the movie when the visuals and the music melted into one another and really formed a whole. (And Bono really was pretty cool as Dr. Robert--although it took me probably a full 2 minutes to decide it was Bono, and not Robin Williams.)
- Ok, and this is more risky--but what about moving the time period to now? Oh, wait, no one is as upset about the Iraq War now as they were about the Vietnam War back then. In 2007 we march somewhere once or twice a year now, and then retreat to Starbucks and Wal-Mart until the next show of feeble protest. Maybe that's because there's no draft, so all the privileged white kids who have the resources to execute some really kick-ass protests are unaffected by the current war. OK, so maybe setting the movie in 2003 or 2007 would require some significant plot changes. And it might change the tone of the movie some--it wouldn't be the familiar story of a world gone mad, but the kind of madness that ended a war. A 2007 version would tell of a different kind of madness--one that pulls its sheets up over its head and waits for war to go away, rather than declaring all-out war on war. I don't know how this would play, but something tells me it could still work somehow. But, then again, you chance for a feel-good ending would be gone, since there is no end in sight, feel-good or otherwise, to the current bloodshed. The only end possible for such a movie would be the very unsatisfying (but deeply honest) endings to movies like Spike Lee's early School Daze or Do the Right Thing, or even his fantasy happy ending in 25th Hour.
Just about the saddest thing I can say about this nice movie is that I've already forgotten what it looked and sounded like, for the most part. I saw Titus 7 years ago, and I still can't forget certain moments in that film. Hopefully this is just a junior jinx for Taymor, and, if it is, it's not a terrible one. Still, I'd like to have her knock my shoes and socks off next time (and let's have a next time before 2013, ok, Jules?).
P.S. As I look at other people's reviews of this movie, I can't help wondering a couple of things. 1.) If this movie were directed by some new director that I'd never heard of, I think I might have liked it a little better; so much of my lackluster response has to do with the inordinately high expectations I had of Julie Taymor. 2.) I wonder if I'm starting to have trouble with big-release movies because they're not really being made for me. I'm officially not in the 18-36 demographic--the one that forms the majority of all multiplex ticket sales. I bet this movie goes over a lot better with the teens and twentysomethings who bought The Beatles 1 album back in 2000. I could be wrong...of course.
P.P.S. I've been reading a little bit more, and I'm mildly surprised to find that the actors really are singing their musical numbers. It's a shame, then, that the performances are so styrofoamy. Ironically, I think it takes a very special talent/effort to make actors look like they really mean it when they sing. It's been done, though--again, I point to Moulin Rouge! and Once.