Monday, December 10, 2007

The Beatless and generational history

Across the Universe. Dir. Julie Taymore. 2007.

I watched Across the Universe recently, not expecting to like it much. I had heard that the critics were split, that the plot devolved into chaos at some point, and in general that it was too sentimental and nostalgic. It is, indeed, an excercise in baby boomer musical nostalgia with some serious issues, but all honesty, I enjoyed it very much.

Based on what I had heard, I expected the plot to completely fall apart at some point, but really it carried through pretty well. There were moments that didn't make much logical sense, but that's OK sometimes. In this case it rather worked, though it was a little annoying. There were serious problems with the plot of Across the Universe, but I don't think there was a lack of plot. It was really about the wrong emphasis and audience investment in the characters. The film spent a lot of time assembling a large group of characters into an East Villiage apartment (a la Rent), but it didn't do anything with them as a group. There was no investment in these characters apart from their historical analogs. While I could recognize that these were John and Paul, Janis and Jimi and Yoko, I didn't know why I should care. If the film had spent some time establishing their relationship and their group dynamic, the rest of the plot would have had its climaxes and tragedies with some meaning.

In this case, it feels as if the film is relying on history to make the points and provide the investment inherently. Which is a problem for any audience member who isn't a baby boomer Beatles fanatic. I grew up with the Beatles as occasional background music - my parents weren't huge fans, but we listened occasionally. I had a couple of greatest hits albums on CD, but certainly wasn't invested in the Beatles history or tracking down their more obscure songs. As a result, all of the clever allusions and carefully thought-out historical analogies are lost on me, and presumably a large percentage of the audience.

I blame the editing, and a few small directorial decisions. There were many brilliant things about this film, but they weren't put together quite right. A little more plot/character development/explanation, and it might all have been delightful. Apparently, there was some dispute about the editing between Taymor and the producer; I would definitely like to see whichever versions did not end up being the final cut to see if some of these problems were fixed in a shorter or longer version.

I did, however, very much enjoy this film as a movie musical. By taking songs that are so familiar and reworking them, often simplifying them, I was forced to listen to the Beatles music again and to think about something that had been nothing more than background soundtrack to my life. In the songs where the reworking was successful, particularly toward the beginning of the film, it was an amazing experience. Similarly, the visuals to the songs included some amazing Taymor artistry. Production numbers in an Ivy League college and an army induction center were sheer delight, and I would have liked to see Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy have some similar big production numbers establishing her character. The initial reveal of John Sturgess as Jude with his giant Paul McCartney eyes at the beginning of the film was breathtaking, but its impact was ruined by being used in the trailer. The film definitely had moments in which Taymor's genius read loud and clear, but the overall product was problematic. I loved it anyway, though. I appreciate it for what it could have been, what it wanted to be, and what in its best moment it was: an affectionate, creative, visually stunning movie musical, in which the songs of the Beatles were (sometimes cleverly) recontextualized and reconceptualized.