In the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical, it was accepted that suddenly, in the middle of a scene of dialogue, a character would break into song. Another way to say it is: There was confidence in the genre. We’ve lost a lot of that in our more ironic age, which is even true in Broadway musicals themselves at the present moment, where the classic old-school musical is now out of style, and when it is done, more often than not it is done with a wink-wink at the audience, making the whole thing into kitsch. This is all fine – sensibilities change, and the musical then becomes a problem that must be solved. Good directors know how to handle this. They understand that they must create a context where the genre can live again, and it seems organic.
I was not an admirer of the movie Chicago, but one of the reasons it worked (I admit grudgingly) was that Rob Marshall dealt with this problem head-on. He made the songs into interior monologues, the characters going into psychological dream-spaces, where it would make sense that they would sing. Marshall realized it was an issue – that you can’t go old-school with this stuff, not now, modern audiences don’t tolerate it – and so each song occurred inside a character’s mind. I didn’t like the movie, but I liked how he handled the “problem” of the musical. It worked. Dreamgirls (the movie) did not deal with this issue well at all. When the scenes were flat-out performances, of the girls onstage, or rehearsing, it was fine. Then, the movie knew what it was: basically a concert movie. But when suddenly characters were singing in the middle of their lives, breaking into song, essentially, the movie totally lost its way. I felt that it was embarrassed for itself in those moments, especially in the number “Family”. I winced through that scene, watching the actors try to pretend that a context had been provided for them where it would make sense that they would break into song. Jamie Foxx seemed mortified. Nobody knew what movie they were in. Like I said, when the movie showed actual performances, it was fine – but the problem of the musical had not at all been handled, and so the movie was very wobbly. If you’re doing a musical, then you need to have confidence in the genre, and that’s final. Dreamgirls didn’t. They WANTED to be a biopic, they knew HOW to do a biopic, but that’s not how the thing is written. It’s a musical. Don’t condescend to the genre. Figure out a way to make it palatable to a modern audience or don’t do it. If the conversation-songs had been left out of the film, or somehow turned into onstage performances, perhaps the movie would have felt like it had more confidence in itself.
Julie Taymor, director of Across the Universe, knows a little bit about Broadway musicals, having created and directed The Lion King, although much of that project (the huge puppets, the handmade quality of the effects) breaks the mold. I saw it and it certainly doesn’t look like anything else. Her film projects so far have been eclectic and fascinating (Frida, Titus, and her next project is The Tempest, which I cannot WAIT to see) and she is working at her full powers with Across the Universe, the “musical” made up only of Beatles songs. It is hard to express the joy and enthusiasm in this film, not to mention its wild creativity in lighting/production design/visual effects. How many worlds does Taymor create here? It’s dazzling. Suburban Massachusetts, all golden light and green grass. Liverpool, England, cramped alleyways and dark muted tones. The lower East side of Manhattan, early 60s, with colored grafitti and crowded sidewalks. A drug trip in a psychedelic school bus. A dreamy gorgeous underwater sequence. Strawberries pinned to the wall of a bohemian apartment. The Detroit riots, with cars burning, and handheld cameras. Each world created with total confidence in the story being told, and also the genre itself. There is maybe half an hour of straight dialogue in the film. The rest is told through song.
The film opens with a shot of an empty beach, with a young man sitting in the sand by the shore. The color palette is muted, greys and browns, a bleak setting. The camera moves in slowly towards the boy. He stares out at the ocean. As the camera pulls in close to him, he turns and looks directly at the camera, and starts to sing. “Is there anybody going to listen to my story? All about a girl who came to stay. She’s the kind of girl you want so much it makes you sorry. Still you don’t regret a single day.”
Taymor says in the director’s commentary that they wanted to start off immediately with a song, and to make it even more explicit, have the young man sing directly to the camera. This works on multiple levels, but the main reason it works is because it tells the audience right away that This Is a Musical, no bones about it. He breaks the fourth wall, as people do all the time in musicals, and he sings. There will be no caginess about the genre. There is no embarrassment, like: “sorry, just going to break into song here, I know it’s weird, bear with me …” which is how I felt Jamie Foxx performed his numbers in Dreamgirls. He seemed embarrassed. Like: “Hey, I thought I was in a serious biopic – what is THIS shit you’re making me do now??” Taymor was so smart in this choice, for the opening of the film, and also smart in the song she chose to start the movie. How perfect is it that the young man is saying, “Please listen to my story. I want to tell you a story …” So the opening moment works on the genre level – it is a song, sung to an audience – and it also works on the story level. “I am going to tell you a story now.” It is not realistic, and the film tells you right away what it is, and what you can expect.
Directly following this, the camera moves to the waves, with a change in music. The melancholy tones of “Girl” change, to the jarring screaming of “Helter Skelter”, and in the curls of the waves we start to see black and white footage, newsreel-style, of the protests of the 1960s, with cops in riot gear, chaos, screaming, people being hauled away by the cops, with a couple of shots of gorgeous Evan Rachel Wood, screaming and fighting back.
The connection is made visually: this is “the girl” of whom he sings. Immediately clear, done with no dialogue. But yet another thing happens in this segue: Taymor lets us know that the style of the movie is going to be non-realistic, like a collage or mosaic. We will be moving through different worlds, and we should not expect things to unfold in a literal fashion. Music will be key to this. The Beatles are introduced head-on. That’s the whole point of the movie.
In this short opening sequence, from the young man on the beach to the waves revealing scenes of protests and chaos, Taymor tells us, with total confidence, Here is what we will be doing, here is what you can expect.
That is confidence.
And because she (and her team) have confidence, I can relax. I know she knows where she’s going, what she’s doing, and while that does not always translate to a good or moving movie, in this case it does. There are scenes that have quickly become favorites of mine, things I will go back to again and again (the opening sequence with two versions of “Hold Me Tight” – American suburbia and Liverpool underground).
There is a whimsy here, yes, and a creativity with the song choices and their placement; they obviously had a lot of fun weaving the songs into the story. It doesn’t sacrifice reality. The first time I saw it, there were literally moments that I found myself laughing out loud, not because it was funny, but because I was so overjoyed by what had been created, the ridiculousness of it, and how … wow …. in many cases I was seeing something I had never seen before. There are references, certainly, to pop culture through the 60s, Hard Day’s Night, of course, and the Monty Python animated sketches. It’s fun to revel in it.
It’s a rare movie that can provide that. Most visuals in movies are variations on a theme. Sunsets, dinner tables, horse stables, whatever – they can be quite beautiful but we have seen them all before. When a director can show me something I literally have never seen before, I fall in love. It’s one of the reasons why I love foreign films so much, and especially films from Iran and Central Asia. The context is so different, the worlds so different, the perspective so different – that often I am confronted with a landscape or viewpoint that I have literally never seen before. Love! Julie Taymor gives me that over and over and over again in Across the Universe, which tells actually a rather conventional story (6 characters converge to New York City in the early 60s, their paths intersect, and the Vietnam War changes everything), but the WAY it is told, and how it LOOKS, is completely its own.
Some of the storytelling devices here annoyed some critics, and I see their point, but it all worked for me. The 6 lead characters are named Jude, Lucy, Prudence, Max, Jo Jo and Sadie. I loved that. Cutesy? Perhaps. But it also was practical: if you want to include “Hey Jude” in a movie-musical of Beatles numbers, then it certainly helps, in terms of story, if you have a character named Jude. If you want to have “Dear Prudence” act as a sort of “Cheer Up Charlie” number, then it helps that the character who needs the pep talk is named Prudence. Perhaps it’s a bit literal of a choice, but I didn’t mind that. I thought it was an effective device, and got us even deeper into the story. The entire context for these people is Beatles songs. There is no other music in the film, no other suggestion that other bands may exist. We are inside the songs. So in that world, of course all of the characters would have names from the songs themselves.
There were also many in-jokes, for anyone familiar with the Beatles songbook, and I loved that. It’s a bit of a wink-wink, but it seemed appropriate with the non-literal material, where the entire world is a Beatles song. If you get it, you get it. If you don’t, it doesn’t exclude you. Back in Liverpool, Jude worked at the shipyards, and when he goes to pick up his paycheck, he makes a comment that tells us it will be his last paycheck, he’s taking off. The guy behind the counter says kindly, “I felt the same way when I was your age. I told myself, ‘When I’m 64, I’ll be long gone from this place.’” In New York, Jude has hooked up with a bunch of bohemian characters and they all live in one apartment. One rainy night, a girl named Prudence crawls in through a window and stands there, she needs a place to stay. Sadie looks at her and says, “Where did she come from?” and Jude replies, “She came in through the bathroom window.” I loved these in-jokes. Maybe they’re a bit corny, but so are musicals. It fits. It’s funny and irreverent and a little bit stupid. Perfect for the material and context.
Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a boy from Liverpool, working in the shipyards. He leaves his mother behind, and sails off to America, in search for his father, who had impregnated his mother while stationed in Liverpool and then left.
Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) is a young American teenager, whose boyfriend has just shipped off to Vietnam. It is the early 60s, so the turmoil and strife of the late 60s is yet to come. Lucy lives in a big sprawling house, goes to high school, and writes love letters to her boyfriend. She is conventional, perhaps, but there are clues that she is also a searcher, a questioner (she doesn’t want to have kids, for example, she doesn’t see the point). This will be important later in the story.
Max (Joe Anderson) is Lucy’s wild brother. He is currently an undergraduate at Princeton, and he spends most of his time goofing off and getting drunk (“high with a little help from his friends”), not going to class, and rebelling. The spectre of the draft is just starting, but he really wants to drop out of Princeton, and hang out for a while, find out what he really wants to do. His parents are horrified.
Jo Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) is a guitarist, who moves to New York in the wake of the Detroit riots, to escape the carnage and get a new start. A kind of Jimi Hendrix character, he tries to find his own style of music, while also supporting others, but it soon becomes clear that he is a solo artist, end-stop.
Sadie (Dana Fuchs) is a singer of the Janis Joplin variety, and she lives in a sprawling apartment in the East Village, filled with other artists and bohemians. Jude and Max live there, and eventually Lucy moves in too. Sadie is a struggling artist, playing small venues, but she is being courted by a major label. A kind of den mother to the strays who come her way, she exemplifies the communal aspect of so much of 60s youth culture, yet also the need for the individual to assert herself. With a rocking raspy voice, she KILLS “Oh, Darling”, and “Do It in the Road” and “Helter Skelter”.
Prudence (TV Carpio) is a runaway from Ohio who also ends up in New York. An Asian American teenager, isolated, not only by her race but by the fact that she is attracted to other girls, she finds solace and comfort in the idiosyncratic world of Bohemian New York, where she doesn’t have to try to fit in, but can be herself.
The acting is good. I cared about these people. I liked the sense of breath that was in the songs, the sense that the songs were just extensions of the scenes.
The film is a masterpiece of integration. There’s an organic feel to the plot, despite all the artifice, and the story is involving. Jude finds his father who works as a janitor at Princeton University. During his time at Princeton, he befriends the wild good-hearted Max, who takes him home for Thanksgiving. This is where Jude meets Lucy for the first time. Love at first sight? Perhaps, but she has a boyfriend. Max drops out of Princeton and he and Jude travel to New York. They get rooms at Sadie’s apartment. Jude gets a job as an illustrator at an underground magazine. Max gets his draft notice and burns it at the table. Things are starting to get serious, but at first nobody really notices. Lucy does, however, because her boyfriend is killed in Vietnam. Heartbroken, she moves to New York to be with her brother, to get away for a bit before she goes to college. Jude and Lucy start a romance, sweet and sincere. Max begins to spiral out of control. He gets drafted. He goes to Vietnam. Lucy becomes involved in the anti-war movement.
With cameos by Joe Cocker (who plays, in one song, “Come Together”, a hobo, a pimp, and a hippie), Eddie Izzard (who plays a Mr. Kite, who runs an insane carnival in the middle of a field), and Bono, who plays Dr. Robert, a drug guru along the lines of Timothy Leary, the 6 leads are relative unknowns, which makes their singing and acting all the more potent, since we only know them in this context. The conversational quality of many of the songs (Jude whisper-singing in his girlfriend’s ear as they make out, “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you …”) makes this world seem completely logical and true: These people sing Beatles songs and that’s how this world operates. If that sense were not in place, if that context had not been created, then the entire thing would have seemed flimsy and pointless. (As in: what, you can’t write your own script? You need to use Beatles songs to hang your hat on?) Taymor and her team (especially the musical arrangements, done by Eliot Goldenthal) are absolutely specific in every moment. Nothing repeats. The songs live and breathe, not just because they are classic songs, but because they live in this particular context, they help tell this very specific story. It’s mind-boggling how successful this is, when you imagine how much it COULD have gone so wrong.
Another thing that really makes Across the Universe special is that it is (for the most part) live singing. Normally, with movie musicals, you record the songs beforehand, and then when you film the scene, you lip sync to the recording. It’s a practical matter, a sound issue, all that, but Taymor is up to something different here. She wanted to create songs that feel like speech, choreography that feels like regular movement, but never to forget that this is, ultimately, an artificial universe, one where people sing their language. So most of the singing that you see in Across the Universe is live. This is amazingly rare.
Because Julie Taymor is the director, and her work with puppets and giant hand-made creations is her forte, there is a lot of that here, so what you see is real, as opposed to computer-generated effects. There is choreography, which adds to the effect, never taking away. Businessmen stomp around in midtown, moving as one. Max, in a VA hospital, is haunted by dancing sexy nurses holding syringes. Prostitutes writhe on fire escapes in the lower east side. What I loved so much in all of this was not just the acceptance of the musical format, but the wholehearted embrace of it.
What could have been a series of gimmicks turns into a heartfelt story about the last years of the 1960s and the upheaval, both political and social. It does not become didactic, it has a spirit to it, all held together by the vast songbook of the Beatles catalog – the early innocent rock and roll tunes like “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, which here is upended by having Prudence sing it, in her cheerleader uniform in Ohio, staring longingly at another female cheerleader. Quite unbalancing. And the song is slowed down to a ballad. I loved Ebert’s comment about the use of the song in Across the Universe:
When Prudence sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” for example, I realized how wrong I was to ever think that was a happy song. It’s not happy if it’s a hand you are never, never, never going to hold. The love that dare not express its name turns in sadness to song.
That flexibility inherent in most of the Beatles songs, and how they can “take” so much interpretation, is one of the reasons they are so extraordinary. The movie has a lot of fun with that.
And one of its strongest features is that despite its startling visuals and the fact that, you know, it’s a musical, it keeps its eye on the ball, and never forgets that why we will invest, why we will enter into this magical world where people sing instead of speak, is that it presents to us characters who seem real to us, who we care about. It has some things to say, about the radicalization of American youth during the Vietnam years, and it’s not what you would expect. There is a depersonalization that goes on when politics becomes the filter for all of human life. The symbol of having a television put into your living room so you can watch the war, instead of talk to each other, or make love, or art, or have a personal life, is made potent here. Ultimately, what Across the Universe is about is about the friendships we make along the way, the bonds we create. All you need is love. Love will not stop wars. But it sure makes our time here better, and if you forget that – if you abstract experience into just a political journey – you miss the whole point. Of course none of that is clear in times of upheaval when the stakes are high, but Across the Universe attempts to address that situation. Lucy begins to cut off from personal relationships. They seem trivial in the face of what is happening in Vietnam. Her boyfriend died over there. Her brother is over there. What does it matter that her boyfriend is angry that she works too much? But it does matter. Without love, we are nothing. There is a great scene where Jude bursts into the offices of the anti-war movement organization where Lucy works and sings “Revolution” right at her, mocking her commitment, mocking the earnestness, and mocking the cause above all else. This was a no-no in those days, and is certainly a no-no still, in some quarters. But Jude nails it. Not that there are not causes that are worth fighting for, but to what end? The humorlessness of activists is sneered at here, and it reminded me of the great scene in Reds when John Reed reprimands one of his colleagues for missing an important meeting, and Louise Bryant, his lover, looks on, disturbed, realizing that he has changed. He is no longer a journalist. He has a cause. The cause above all things. He crucifies his former friend, who couldn’t make the meeting because his wife was hemorrhaging. In the world of high-stakes revolution, such events are trivial. Personal life must take a back seat. It’s brutal. Inhuman. Across the Universe, in its own quirky way, captures the heartlessness of “community” when it insists on coming before the individual. Now that’s radical.
A rich experience, fun and moving and connected, Across the Universe was one of my favorite films of the last decade. A true gem of creation. It made me clap my hands in glee at its sheer inventiveness and joy, and how often can one say that?
“It feels so right, now hold me tight …”
“Tell me I’m the only one and then I might …”
“Yeah you … got that something … I think you’ll understand …”
“I get by with a little help from my friends …”
“Every night when everybody has fun, here am I, sitting all on my own …”
“Falling, yes I am falling, and she keeps calling me back again …”
“Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be …”
“He shoot Coca Cola …”
“If I fell in love with you, would you promise to be true and help me understand?”
“I want you! I want you so bad! I want you-ou-ou. I want you so bad it’s driving me mad, it’s driving me mad!”
“She’s so …. heavyyyyyyyyyy. She’s so heavyyyyyyyyy!”
“The sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful, and so are you, dear Prudence …”
“I am the egg man … They are the egg men … I am the walrus!”
“For the benefit of Mr. Kite there will be a shot tonight on trampoline …”
“Because the world is round it turns me on … Because the world is round …”
“Oh, darling! Please believe me! I’d never do you no harm …”
“Let me take you down ’cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields …”
“With every mistake, we must surely be learning … while my guitar gently weeps …”
“Jai guru deva om … Nothing’s gonna change my world …”
“I need a fix cause I’m going’ down …”
I believe that Lucy is, indeed, in the sky …