Tuesday, October 09, 2007

"The Sun is Up, the Sky is Blue": A PBB Review of the film "Across the Universe"

The Concept:
"I saw a film today, oh boy..."
The film is essentially a theatrical, highly imaginative romantic musical set in the 1960's, in which each player is a character from a Beatles song. It is, at its core, the Beatles discography brought to life. There is a Jude, a Lucy, a JoJo, a Sexy Sadie, a Dear Prudence, and countless others who are woven together in a storyline set in the turbulent Vietnam era. The result is something...well, pretty remarkable, no matter how you slice it.

The Disclaimer:
"You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"
I love the Beatles. Despite my very protected childhood, I discovered the Beatles in earnest at the very tail end of college, but my deep love for their music came in the last few years. I listen to Abbey Road or the White Album or best-of compilations or the trippy "Love" concept album, almost daily. So I'm reviewing this film--a celluloid love-letter to the band and their music--as a fan. Obviously YMMV.


The Plot:
"Ah, look at all the lonely people..."
Jude is a shipyard worker from Liverpool (natch) who leaves to find his real father, an American GI who met and impregnated Jude's mom during the war. Jude finds him at Princeton (as a janitor, not a professor), but also meets Max, your typical loveable, upper-class scaliwag. Jude easily falls in with Max's group of friends at school, but when Max drops out of school and decides to move to New York, Jude's along for the ride. So is Max's sister Lucy, who is mourning the death of her boyfriend in Vietnam. She finds comfort and love in the arms of Jude, as they build a life in New York with Max and a ragtag bunch of misfits and beautiful freaks. These include their night-club-singing, dead-ringer-for-Janis landlady, Sadie; a pseudo-Hendrix guitar player named JoJo; a misfit named Prudence who's always pining for someone she can't have; and many more.

This idyllic scene begins to unravel when Max is drafted; Sadie leaves the band, and her man JoJo; Lucy joins a militant student protest group, and Jude becomes jealous of her relationship with its leader; and a series of events leads to Jude facing immigration worries.

Can there be a happy ending, with all of these once-perfect pieces flying apart? Of course there can. Remember: all you need is love. And drugs. Lots of drugs.

What I Liked:
"Take a sad song and make it better..."
Strike that--here's what I loved: almost everything. The plot, while pretty basic, was still enjoyable. Elements that some would call "predictable," I considered comfortable and inviting. The actors were nearly perfectly cast; the singing was spot-on. I loved the Sadie-Jojo storyline as much as I did the Jude-Lucy storyline. There were certain musical set-pieces that gave me chills. The script was full of verbal and visual references to other Beatles songs, and elements of Beatles trivia (from the Abbey Road cover to the Apple record label image). And it was incredibly uplifting. It made me laugh, cry, and smile. I walked away feeling good. Most of the people walking out with me at the end were singing along with the credits. And that's really what the film's about--feeling. Emotion. Not logic. That's where so many critics went wrong, complaining about the film's simplistic presentation of the political and social issues of the era. That wasn't the point; the point was--how do these characters and these situations make you feel? And that's what the movie got right.

What Didn't Work for Me:
"Don't Let Me Down"
What didn't work artistically was the entire Mr. Kite sequence with Eddie Izzard. This upsets me, because I like Eddie. However, it seemed like he was "phoning in" the entire performance. First, I'm assuming he can't sing--the only actor who couldn't. So he sing-speaks the lyrics of "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," while adlibbing some inane carnival-barker patter between lines. So that took me out of the moment. Plus the fact that, while we had just been on Dr. Robert's acid-wash magical mystery bus ride (starring side-burned BONO!), going from psychedelic freakout to a total-CGI world (a la "Mirrormask") was jarring and unnatural. Up to that point, even with the drug effects, it was a very comfortable, natural film. Stylistically, the transition just didn't make sense. This was the only moment when the movie went off the rails for me. As soon as it returned to an a capella ensemble version of "Because," it was right back on track.

"Helter Skelter"
Obviously, the film was anti-Vietnam, and had some unflattering views of the military and the war. (One sequence in particular involves a group of soldiers carrying a giant Statue of Liberty as they trudge across a small-scale model of the jungle, singing "She's So Heavy." The intent behind that is probably worth some pondering.) At first, the anti-war protesters are presented in a rather positive light.

However, there is a point at which things start to turn. Lucy and Jude have an argument about her involvement in the organization and particularly with its leader. And Lucy makes some comment about how it might take bombs going off "here" before people listen. Later, Jude storms into the protest group (which is a transparent reference to the SDS) headquarters and starts singing "You say you want a revolution..." At one point during the song, we see the doors in the back open up to reveal a meeting between a Black Panther member and the protest leader and some others, and on the wall there is in fact a picture of "Chairman Mao." Ultimately, we find out that the protest group is building bombs and moving to more "radical" forms of revolution, and one of those bombs accidentally blows up the group members building it (just as one did with the SDS/Weathermen in 1970). So, from "Revolution" onward, the group and its activities are seen in a bit more negative light. Not entirely negative, but there's clearly a statement about how far is going too far. The political bent of the film is definitely left-leaning, but guardedly so.

Ratings Issues and Morality Questions:
"Why don't we d-do it in the road?"
There were some things that I didn't particularly like, and it behooves me to mention them here. One problem was the random nudity, which was infrequent but unneeded. Another was Prudence's being a lesbian, which was also unnecessary but thankfully not highlighted and made a huge "issue" in the film. I didn't need to be preached at. However, it's there, and tacitly approved. Obviously, one big issue in the film is drug use, which is frequent and celebrated. So there are red flags here that should not be ignored. Being a film about the sixties, sexuality is handled casually. Characters sleep around. The only marriages portrayed are the strained WASPish marriage of Max and Lucy's parents and the "settling" marriage of Jude's friend and his ex-girlfriend. There is no mention of the prospect of marriage among any of the leads, and it doesn't get a fair shake overall in how it's portrayed (or ignored).

So there are subtle messages here that should not be ignored, folks. Every piece of art is talking to you; it's up to you to realize what it's saying. And the message here is clearly, "All you need is love." And that's not entirely true.


Final Verdict:
"Here Comes the Sun"
I loved this film. The visuals and music were breathtaking and emotive, the acting was engaging, the plot was familiar but enlivened by the music, and the overall feeling of the film was very emotionally moving and satisfying. There are some moral questions that should not be ignored, as I've outlined, but there is also a lot of good in the film. So, if you are a Beatles fan or can appreciate their impact on music and culture, I'd strongly recommend this film (keeping the other issues in mind).

If you're a Beatles purist, and can't stand the thought of anyone other than John, Paul, George, and Ringo singing and playing this music, I'd encourage you to see the film anyway. It's a love letter to the band and what they meant, and after seeing a screening, Paul McCartney himself said, "What's not to love?"

However, if you can't stand the Beatles, movie musicals, or feeling happy, or if you are incurably cynical and/or jaded, stay away from the film. You'll be sorely disappointed.

[For another--and for my money, better-written--review of the film, see Trav's blog.]

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