Deconstructing the movie “Across The Universe” and the soundtrack.
Having spent the best part of 6 years living in Liverpool, and having been an ardent fan for much longer than that, I think it’s fair to say I’m familiar almost (but not quite) to the point of saturation with the oeuvre of The Beatles. Placed in the context of the history of pop music the Fab Four’s body of work can still be seen to occupy some kind of creative high-water mark, such is the enduring ability of their songs and albums to dazzle and amaze with the levels of originality, craftsmanship and all-round brilliance on display. To put it simply, they are still the best, still the band that set the standards which everyone else followed. Others from their generation made indelible marks but none of them were quite as all pervading, or managed to bleed in to so many areas of so many lives in so many parts of the world.
To this extent their music has achieved a status that is equivalent in many ways to some kind of ‘folk’ music, by which I mean it is ingrained in to the popular consciousness of a large swathe of humanity in the same way nursery rhymes or songs like Happy Birthday or Auld Lang Syne are. The Beatles and their music have become part of a common cultural vernacular. Start singing Yellow Submarine or Hey Jude or Let It Be or She Loves You pretty much anywhere in the world and someone within earshot will recognise it and probably start singing along too. Most bands or singers would be happy to have one song like that. The Beatles have rafts of them, plus a whole load of less familiar but equally brilliant songs tucked away on albums and b-sides.
So where does Across The Universe fit in to all of this? Well firstly, although this may be drawing on songs created in the 60’s it is very much the product of more recent times. The vogue for using popular music to create works for film or stage can be seen in everything from Glee (which I’ve never watched) to stage-shows like Mamma-Mia and We Will Rock You (which I’ve also never seen) and with films probably began in the modern era with Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (nope, never seen that either. Sue me…).
Now I’ll be honest, I was a little cynical before I sat down to watch this. I think a part of me wanted to dislike it, to hate it even, as if my inbuilt musical snobbery would see a film like this as some kind of sacrilegious act, blasphemy almost. I imagined myself getting to the end (assuming I made it that far) and feeling like something very precious to me had been desecrated, as if this great body of work will have been Hollywood-ed and blandly recycled in some kind of cynically exploitative marketing exercise. Enjoy it? Pah! How could I enjoy hearing this music that I love being turned in to something so soulless and bland…
Imagine my surprise then when, about half-way through the film, I found myself smiling, engrossed, as if I was, y’know, actually enjoying it!! Amazing. I learnt a valuable lesson about myself, which is that I need to stop being such a grumpy old man when it comes to films like this.
That’s not to say that I didn’t find fault. The plotline is a little rambling and ultimately quite shallow; the anti-war message (assuming that’s what it was) is vague and simplistic; and at times the use of particular songs to create a scene is a little too obviously contrived, such as the figurative use of Dear Prudence to literally coax Prudence (a young lesbian) ‘out of the closet’. At moments like this the film feels a little forced, as if the decision to include a character called Prudence necessitated a quite unnecessary scene. Indeed, Prudence’s sexuality is never fully explored and after this scene is largely disregarded and as such you wonder why the character was even included in the first place.
However, when the film is at its best there are some gloriously entertaining and musically worthwhile moments such as…
I Want You (She’s So Heavy)
Lennon’s song about his sexual obsession with Yoko is re-appropriated here as the patriotic call-to-arms of the American military machine. It works because the ‘heavy’ tone of the music and the repetitive nature of the lyric perfectly fit the scene, showing the dehumanizing process of military induction. Of all the moments in this film dealing with the Vietnam war this is the one that comes closest to delivering some kind of substantial message….
Sound-tracking the arrival in New York of the character Jojo (played by Martin Luther McCoy), this works for a few reasons not least that it’s a kick-ass song! Secondly, it’s sung by the legend that is Joe Cocker (who famously covered ‘With A Little Help From My Friends at Woodstock, of course) and it doesn’t get much better than that! As well as that we get to see real-life musician McCoy (he’s played with The Roots amongst others) reel off some very tasty guitar licks…
Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!
Because it’s got Eddie Izzard at his bizarre best, because it draws heavily on things like The Beatles’ own Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine films (look! Blue Meanies!) as well as the surrealism of Alice In Wonderland to create the most fantastical 5 minutes of the film (and there is quite a bit of competition for that title). Izzard doesn’t sing the song, but rather delivers it in his own style throwing in various ad-libs and asides, whilst visually we are taken on a ‘trip’, although no quite as obviously as the last scene I’ll include which is….
I Am The Walrus
Ok, so if there was anyone or anything that I knew about this film prior to seeing it that put me off, it was the knowledge that contained somewhere within was Bono. It’s irrational, I know, but something about U2’s mighty-mouth singer that irritates the hell out of me. Remember earlier when I said I was surprised by how much I was enjoying the film? It was at this moment the surprise really kicked in. Playing Doctor Robert, (the character is actually based on LSD guru and chief Merry Prankster Ken Kesey) his inclusion is one of the film’s triumphs and this hallucinogenic scene one of the highlights, visually and musically. I actually kind of forgot it was Bono, and maybe that’s why it worked. Once again, the fact that it’s an amazing song helps too.
There are other great moments (While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Let It Be and Happiness Is A Warm Gun are all used to great effect too) and the overall sweep of the film is very satisfying. The secret of the film’s magic is to take elements familiar to millions of people and to use them to create a collage of re-imaginings which, in a slightly patchwork fashion, add up to something wholly entertaining. There may be other Beatles snobs amongst you who will approach this film with the same pessimistic preconceptions as myself, but all I can say to you is LIGHTEN UP! If you are expecting a work of cinematic genius on a par with Sgt. Pepper then you will be disappointed. Let all of that go, allow the film to suck you in to its world and go with it and you will find that you are left with a huge smile on your face. A splendid time is guaranteed for all!