Across the Universe
"I am he / As you are he / As you are me / And we are all together."
I cannot remember the last time I was so conflicted about a film's merits.
Usually it's pretty clear within 24 hours of seeing a film whether or not it's worth recommending and where exactly it sits on the sliding scale of the letter grade system. Any internal debate is generally fairly minor. "C or C+?" "Are the film's flaws significant enough to affix a minus?" And so on.
"Sitting on a cornflake - waiting for the van to come."
However, with "Across the Universe," the bold new film from director Julie Taymor ("Titus" and "Frida,") it's a much more complex struggle for a fairly simple reason. The film has an incredible, exhilarating concept. It's a colorful musical of the 1960s which is told through the songs and mythos of the Beatles. It features over 30 Beatles songs and continually references the band's music in inventive ways.
The story focuses on Liverpudlian (a resident of the Beatles' hometown Liverpool) Jude ("Hey Jude") who comes to America in search of his father. Once there he discovers his father to be a janitor at Princeton - a working class man just like himself. While at the college he befriends a rebellious student named Max ("Maxwell's Silver Hammer.") Max introduces Jude to his family, including the wholesome Lucy ("Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,") whose boyfriend has just been sent to Vietnam.
"Sitting in an English garden waiting for the sun"
Max decides to drop out of college and head to New York City and Jude joins him. They end up living with a Janis Joplin-esque singer named Sadie ("Sexy Sadie.") Their roommates include a Jimi Hendrix-style guitarist named JoJo ("Get Back") and the shy Prudence ("Dear Prudence.") This group of characters - soon joined by Lucy - then dives headfirst into the counterculture and anti-war movement. Among the people they encounter is a Ken Kesey-inspired LSD guru named Dr. Robert played by Bono and a wild circus ringmaster named Mr. Kite played by Eddie Izzard. Lucy also drifts into an anti-war group resembling Students for a Democratic Society and, later, the Weathermen.
So what's the problem? The simple reason for the struggle to judge the film: it simply does not work.
The film's salvation is also its damnation. As a Beatlemaniac I found the concept thrilling. I'm not the biggest musical fan but I'll certainly watch a two hour musical if it's comprised of Beatles songs. It's a great idea. But locking themselves into this concept also created a nearly impossible challenge for the filmmakers. They had all of the music right from the beginning. They then had to write the film around it. They had to figure out how they're going to use certain songs and incorporate the essential Beatles tracks into the film. (And if you take a look at the list of included songs they actually did a fantastic job of hitting all the biggies.)
"Don't you think the joker laughs at you? Ha ha ha!"
What this results in is a film whose characters, plot, and drama are wholly third rate. They're just a clothesline on which to hang the gorgeous, creative musical sequences.
And so the film ultimately ends up on the wrong side in the realm of "gimmick filmmaking." When a film features some wild, brilliant, exciting idea - in this case a musical based on everything Beatles - a question must be asked: is the gimmick in service of the story or is the story in service of the gimmick? I mean, why was the film made? So the gimmick could be showcased? Or so a story could be told in an original way?
Usually the former results in the weaker film. As filmgoers we need character/plot/story/themes. They're our bread - the base of our cinematic food pyramid. And gimmicks are usually the candy at the top of the pyramid. And while it may be tasty - gimmicks usually are - it rarely leaves one satisfied as the credits begin to roll.
"Semoline pilchards climbing up the Eiffel Tower / Elementary penguin singing Hare Khrishna"
One filmmaker who this idea often applies to is celebrated screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Nobody talks about the characters/story/plot of "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation." No, what's celebrated is their gimmicky originality. That's what they're about. They came from wild conceptual ideas which then had their stories filled in later. (At least that would be my guess were I a mind reader.) Now "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" is a totally different animal. With that film you've got the wild visuals and inventive concept but it's utilized to tell this wonderful love story populated with memorable characters.
Still, though, when the gimmick fails, the film is still remembered and given a certain amount of admiration. In film - as in any art - to try something original and fail can often be as good - often better - than doing the conventional and succeeding. Clichés are the tools of lazy writers, but please allow one: "If you shoot for the moon and miss at least you land among the stars."
"I am the eggman oh, they are they eggmen - Oh I am the walrus"
And when you're floating around in outer space, across the universe, often you find yourself drifting in ways you had not expected. In the days since seeing "Across the Universe" my affection for it has only grown. In a few days it managed to climb a full letter grade in my opinion, and I now have to admit that I'm tempted to give it a second viewing, maybe even in theatres. And so, at this point, the film can be recommended wholeheartedly not just to Beatles, musical, and '60s counterculture fans but to anyone looking for a fun, exciting, colorful film.
"GOO GOO GOO JOOB GOO GOO GOOOOOOOOOOOJOOOOOB."