Monday, October 22, 2007

Sugar plum fairy, sugar plum fairy...

Rarely does a film with only meager ambitions fail miserably. It takes such bold ambition, such overreaching aspiration for something to fall so unflinchingly. Across the Universe is that type of movie. Julie Taymor's new film tries to (re-) contextualize the most revered canon in popular music--that, of course, of the Beatles--as woven through the story of young lovers, budding musicians, and an anti-war polemic.

I will readily admit to a bias up front: I am a huge Beatles fan. When I first heard the premise for this film, I had my reservations. Why even bother covering records that were so perfect in the first place? The answer to this I don't have, but the results are glaring.

Let's start with, obviously, the music. The performances here range from the okay to the awful. At its best, the musical performances are as good as the finals of any given season on "American Idol." At its worst, they are as bad as the auditions for any given season on "American Idol." As great as the Beatles were, much of their early material was just as trite as most any meaningless pop song from before their time until now. What made them different--besides the look, besides the "mania"--was the energy of their musicianship, the earnestness of their vocals. Their music had a drive, their records a purpose that transcended the cloying and the saccharine (at least on the surface) of their subject matter. But in the hands of the three leads, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), her love interest Jude (Jim Sturges), and her brother Max (Joe Anderson), the songs just feel banal and annoying. Their interpretations of these oft-heard classics refuse to find a way into the soul of the song. It's like they somehow dance around it, glazing over it, but never really finding the true notes. They know how it goes, but they don't know what it really means.

However, the singers aren't the only ones to blame here. Part of the failure of these songs to truly connect is in the conception of their arrangements and its relation to the narrative. The songs are either so literally conceived, at which point they are just bad covers, or so wildly yanked out of their original context that the emotion of the lyric and melody has lost all relevance. Songs like "All My Loving," "If I Fell," and "Revolution" are dropped into the narrative with such lack of nuance that it's as if they charted out the band's entire oeuvre and attached a specific emotion to each song so that they could pluck out and plug in the correct one when needed. Other songs, such as "Hey Jude" and "All You Need is Love" are faithfully rendered musically, but the context within which the lyrics are contained are changed so arbitrarily that they lose any specific meaning, turning the beauty of the originals into cheesy Broadway-like showtunes.

Roger Ebert, in his four-star review of the film, says the criticism that these aren't the Beatles singing original Beatles' tunes is unwarranted, that "Fred Astaire wasn't Cole Porter, either." But in a way, that kind of misses the point. In the excellent BBC documentary, titled here as Popular Song: Soundtrack of the Century, Elvis Costello makes the terrific insight that we don't have Gershwin's voice attached to any of his songs in the way we hear the Beatles or the Beach Boys when we think of their songs. The point is that the Beatles, along with Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, and a host of others represented a massive paradigm shift in the evolution of popular music: the songwriter as performer. Name any song by the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin, Rodgers & Hart, etc. and one person may immediately think Sinatra, another Crosby, yet another Astaire. Name "Johnny B. Goode," Chuck Berry's the only name that comes to mind, "Like a Rolling Stone," Bob Dylan, and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," the Beatles.

And look, I'm not completely against the idea of somebody covering somebody else's material. In fact I think Joe Cocker's version of "With a Little Help From My Friends" is superior to the one first done by the Beatles. He was able to completely change the feel and tone of the song--from the jaunty, carnivalesque feel of the original to the aching, spare sound of his remake--and improve upon it, bringing a whole new perspective on the same lyric. And Joe Cocker does make a cameo here, singing "Come Together." So it's no surprise that Cocker and also Bono, who performs "I am the Walrus," probably do the most serviceable work as they are the most experienced, most veteran of all the performers. (Too bad Bono's acting still leaves a little to be desired.)

But the music isn't the only thing that's lacking. The screenplay is clich├ęd and obvious. We've seen anti-war movies set in the 60s before and this one predictably weaves its way through the necessary sections. Young lovers separated by the draft? Check. Military personnel arrives at parents' doorstep to inform them of the death of their child? Check. Young idealists protest the war, participating in rallies and riots, and eventually getting arrested? Check. Boyfriend gets jealous of girlfriend hanging out with leader of underground, revolutionist movement? Check. Soldier comes home after war completely mental? Check.

The story here displays a depth of understanding of this very particular period in our history sufficient enough to fill a very short children's reference book. It goes through the motions of being about what it is, without ever once producing any idea of worth, any insight of meaning. And, of course, like in so many musicals, the story is there simply as a clothesline on which to hang the songs and production numbers, but when the writing is so tired, the musical set pieces so underwhelming, instead of being enchanted and entertained, you kind of just want it to end already.

The movie has a lot of defenders and it seems like Across the Universe is one of those polarizing situations, people either really loving it or really hating it. The movie in my mind it most closely resembles is Moulin Rouge--another film I had a negative reaction towards that many others loved. To me, the music in these two movies works only as a gimmick--nothing more, nothing less. Listening to some of the songs, instead of watching the movie, I found myself imagining what the pre-production meeting would sound like: "Gee, Max is about to get drafted; there's an Uncle Sam poster saying 'I Want You.' What song could we play here? Ooh, how about 'I Want You.'" Genius!

If you want to hear a fresh take on this most familiar of music, listen to Love, the mash-up album by Beatles producer George Martin. No other person besides the Beatles themselves knows this music better and Martin plays with it, teasing us with a snippet of a song here, a subtle guitar lick from another song there, and it provides a completely new perspective on songs we all know note-for-note. Both are distinctly 21st century approaches to one of 20th century's most revered of artistic achievements, but while Love invigorates, Across the Universe merely tries to fix a hole in the ocean.

Across the Universe (dir: Julie Taymor; running time 131 minutes)