Saturday, April 13, 2013

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Across the Universe

This one was, and may always be, the toughest decision I have ever had to make.  Some musicals are just made to be on the Wrong list.  But Across the Universe (2007) does so much right -- so very, very right.  A month from now, I could completely flip and decide that Across the Universe should be on the Right list.  But at the moment, I think that its flaws outweigh its virtues.  The movie starts well and then slowly sinks throughout the course of its 133 minutes.

In the most basic sense, Across the Universe is a jukebox musical that makes good use of the Beatles' song catalogue.  Yet it would be more apt to describe it as a love letter to the Beatles.  Certainly not the first -- that would probably be the much-panned Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- but possibly the best.  As someone with a deep, abiding passion for the Beatles, I don't take that lightly.

The story unfolds much like the Beatles' own trajectory.  During their early suit-wearing period, the Beatles' songs were tight and explosive.  Yet from 1965 onward, their songs became looser and dreamier, incorporating more and more nonsense, until the band broke up in 1969 (officially in 1970).  Across the Universe also begins tight and becomes looser, though not necessarily in a good way.  The story follows Jude, a young lad from Liverpool who hops a ship to the United States to meet the father that he never knew.  It turns out that his father is a janitor at Princeton University, and while a relationship between them never really develops, Jude does befriend a trouble-making student named Max.  Max takes Jude home for Thanksgiving dinner, where he introduces him to his sister, Lucy.  Lucy's boyfriend has just shipped off for base camp before heading overseas to fight in the Vietnam War.  Jude immediately develops an infatuation for Lucy, despite also having a sweetheart back in Liverpool.  Max decides to drop out of college, even though that means losing his draft deferral, and he and Jude go to live in New York's Greenwich Village.  There, they share a space with Sadie, a singer; Jojo, a guitarist; and, eventually, Prudence, a teenage runaway.  Lucy visits them and they all go away on an extended road trip with the "existential drug guru," Doctor Robert, while Lucy and Jude fall in love.  From there, things fall apart, as Max goes off to fight in the Vietnam War, Lucy becomes heavily involved in protests, and tensions develop in Sadie and Jojo's band.  Jude gets deported, but arrives back just in time for a reunion on the roof of a building.      

As demonstrated above, the Beatles' homage goes beyond merely using the band's catalogue of songs.  Across the Universe also incorporates several iconic Beatles' moments, such as the band's final live performance on the roof of the Apple building.  Yet at the same time, it is not simply an obvious parody or a copy of the Beatles' history.  Oh, and since so much was made of Les Miserables being sung live, this is worth mentioning: nearly all of Across the Universe was also sung live.  There were some differences -- I think most of the live singing was to a pre-recorded track, so the music did not fit itself to the actors' singing like in Les Miz -- but it was still in-the-moment live singing.

The Good

As I said, there is a lot of good in this film.  Here is a not-inconsiderable list of its best features:

1.  Good Singing.  It probably matters less here than in a more conventional musical whether the singing is good.  But fortunately, it is good.  Jim Sturgess as Jude has a buoyant singing voice, and Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy has especially good chops.  (So good that a rumor persists that she was twice offered the role of Eponine in the Les Miz movie, but turned it down.)

2.  Inventive Use of the Beatles' Song Catalogue.  It would have been easy to fill the soundtrack with the best-known Beatles hits -- and they are there -- but Across the Universe also manages to mine the depths of the Beatles' catalogue and feature the lesser known.  For example, one of the early scenes is set against the backdrop of an early song "Hold Me Tight": the scene cuts between Lucy and her boyfriend dancing at a suburban high school prom and Jude and his girlfriend dancing in the dingy Cavern.  Another lesser-known song, "It Won't Be Long," is used to demonstrate Lucy's anticipation of her boyfriend returning home.  But the best use of a lesser song would probably have to be "I've Just Seen a Face," as shown below:                

But it's not that the movie simply uses lesser-known songs: it also uses well-known songs in interesting ways.  "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" depicts Max's medical evaluation and his departure for Vietnam.  "I Want to Hold Your Hand" features a girl singing about her unrequited love for another girl.  Even "A Day In the Life" is well used, stripped down to a single guitar that forms the backdrop of a tension-filled sequence.    

3.  Inventive Visuals.  Except for the opening scene, it is not all that apparent in the first half of the film, but Across the Universe has some truly mind-blowing visuals.  They kick into gear about the time the main characters go on the bus trip with Doctor Robert, and we're taken into the Psychedelic Sixties.  Director Julie Taymor's visuals in this sequence would make the Fab Four proud: from the kaleidoscope bus trip to the circus with a parade of Blue Meanies to the dreamy unreality of Jude and Lucy connecting underwater.

4.  Nice Homage to Beatles' True Life Events.  Not only does the movie use the songs and names from songs, but it also uses locations that held meaning in the Beatles' career.  Not only the rooftop (though not the Apple one), but also the Merseyside docks, and the Cavern, where the Beatles played before they rocketed to fame.  

5.  It Is Frequently Fun.  Emphasis on the word "frequently."  Across the Universe could have been a lot more enjoyable than it is.  However, there are still many good moments scattered throughout, from Jude's first meeting with Max and his friends to the final call for Jude to go get the girl.  The characters look like they're having fun in these scenes, and that makes it more pleasurable for the viewer.

The Bad

Maybe it would have been too much to expect any jukebox musical to be wholly original, with deep and complex characters.  Or that it would completely resist the urge to showcase songs over story.  But as a viewer, regardless of the genre, I still look at whether the story flows and whether I am invested in the characters.  Unfortunately, Across the Universe fails to deliver on both counts.

1.  The Story Loses Momentum.  It may have been Julie Taymor's choice to pattern the movie after the Beatles' shifting musical style, but it's not one that works well for the viewer.  The first 30 to 40 minutes or so are fairly well paced: we meet Jude and Lucy; Jude meets Max; Jude meets Lucy.  The scenes are tight and burst with energy, especially the aforementioned "Hold Me Tight" and "It Won't Be Long," as well as "With a Little Help From My Friends."  However, even before the gang embarks on the Doctor Robert Express, the momentum starts to falter.

The first misstep happens fairly early, when we meet Prudence, a high school cheerleader, and she sings "I Want to Hold Your Hand."  The next one occurs during the song "Let It Be," which takes place during the Detroit riots.  Individually, these scenes are great, but within the context of the movie they feel too long, more like music videos than necessary scenes.  I understand that we need to establish Prudence and Jojo as characters -- even though they are mostly inconsequential -- and that it would be unthinkable to cut two iconic songs.  But they are both so drawn out, especially "I Want to Hold Your Hand."  They suck momentum right out of the movie.

By the time we reach the Psychedelic Sixties phase of the movie, the momentum completely stops, and the movie has trouble finding it again.  It doesn't help that the story fails to explain a lot of situations, relying on the viewer to find the clues.  For instance, when and why did Sadie "betray" the band by choosing to go solo?  If the movie shows her reasons, it is blink and you miss it.  Supposedly her motives were better explained in the longer director's cut, but that might never see the light of day.  So we have a situation where necessary scenes have been cut, while slow-paced, overlong scenes remain that fail to contribute much to the overall story.  The effect is that I had to fight off sleepiness more than once before the movie finally shifted to its tenser third act.

2.  The Story Is Cliche.  Why does a movie with Beatles songs need to be set in the 1960s?  That was one of the biggest criticisms when Across the Universe premiered, and I think it is a valid one.  While it is quite possible to view this era from a unique angle, this movie doesn't do that.  Vietnam War?  Check.  Greenwich Village hippies?  Check.  Psychedelic drugs?  Check.  Protests?  Check.  Parents Who Just Don't Understand?  Check.  Moreover, it doesn't really say anything new about the Beatles.  They were born, they were psychedelic, and they died.  I think the movie would have been better received if it had been shaped with a different time period in mind.  It would have been interesting to see how Beatles songs might have served a story focused on the Iraq War, or even a setting that had nothing to do with war.

3.  The Characters Are Cliche.  Despite the movie's efforts to give each character a backstory, the characters never rise above cliche.  Jojo lost his younger brother in the 1967 Detroit riot, yet he comes across as little more than a Jimi Hendrix stand-in.  Likewise, Prudence's storyline comes to a crashing halt once she "comes in through the bathroom window"; from that point onward, she is nothing more than a background character.  Sadie is just the Groovy Chick and possibly a MILF.  Max is the Lovable Loser (and to me, the "lovable" part is questionable).  Even Jude and Lucy fail to rise above their essential "cute boy meets cute girl" characters, despite Jude's backstory and Sturgess and Wood's winsome qualities.  Because I don't really connect with the characters, I care less about their struggles and grow more impatient for them to be resolved.  That also makes a movie that could have been very enjoyable drag on.

4.  The Movie Never Escapes Its Jukebox Musical Trappings.  How do I put this?  It might have worked better if this Beatles musical were not about the Beatles at all.  Yes, I just spent time saying how much I appreciated the way it paid homage to the Beatles, but... it feels as though Across the Universe is too bound by the conventions created by those songs.  Like it has to stage certain scenes in certain ways because that is the context in which we have always known those songs.  Like there must be a psychedelic scene; there must be a band; "Revolution" must be about protesting a war.  I guess I'm just restating No. 2, but the movie missed an opportunity to really explore the lyrics and reveal their meaning in a new way.


Despite its missteps, and despite the fact that it made the Wrong list, Across the Universe is plenty enjoyable and a movie that I would recommend to anyone.  And that is something I won't regret saying, whether two weeks or two years from now.

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, RENT

Movie Musicals That Got It Right:  Dreamgirls, Les Miserables 

NOTE: I just watched the movie again last night and made a few minor corrections to the story synopsis.  That's what I get for writing a review based on a memory a few months' old.

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