Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Across the Universe

The songs of the Beatles are signposts by which I measure events from my life over a ten-year period, from 1962 to 1970. They are the songs of my adolescence and early adulthood. I listened intensely to the Beatles for much longer a time. Only the songs of Bob Dylan have for me the same intense personal meaning. The same must be true for millions of others in my age range. It is no surprise then that films such as I am Sam and Across the Universe use the Beatles as a soundtrack in order to appeal to people of a certain generation. Of course, the Beatles remain popular, and numerous people younger than me enjoy their music. But it is mainly people in my range for whom the Beatles have such a powerful personal significance.

Across the Universe (2007), directed by Julie Tamor, seeks to be a musical in the same genre as Moulin Rouge (2001), directed by Baz Luhrmann. It tells the story of a love affair set in the 1960s, when the Beatles were recording and performing. The development of the music itself, which is featured in the film in the general order in which it was composed, helps to trace the progress of the love affair. Moreover, the film also traces the rise and fall of the band by paralleling events that we generally associate with the rise and fall of the Beatles with events from the love affair. Early in the film characters attend performances in a smoky nightclub where performers who faintly resemble the young Beatles are performing an early Beatles song. The scene could have come from a nightclub in Liverpool or in Hamburg, Germany, where the Beatles performed early in their career. The climactic scene in the film is a musical performance on the roof of a city building, much like the one where the Beatles gave their final performance in 1969, a scene presented in the film Let it Be (1970).

There are also characters in the film who vaguely approximate Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, although the resemblance is not close. Historical events of the 60s range in the fore- and background of the film. One of the characters works for an anti-war movement, and her increasing radicalism parallels that of the movement in general in the late 60s.

All of these devices and historical markers are props, and I mean mere props, for the love story. There is no depth at all in this film's representation of music and events. Characters break out into song at various points to express their emotions. Sometimes these moments are quite effective, as in the final scene, and a number of others. Sometimes they are quite ineffective, dull, saccharine, and flat, and there are enough of these moments to bring the film down.

Across the Universe has some wonderful moments, but as a whole it lacks passion and force. It is more like a series of rock videos than a coherent narrative. The characters are broadly drawn. Most of them are named after Beatles songs—Jude, Lucy, Rita, Prudence, and so on. Much of the setting of the film, especially those portions involving urban New York and London, remind you of the stylized and sometimes surreal urban world that gave birth to the wonderful songs on Revolver and Sergeant Peppers. But the film never takes off. Just when it seems to soar, it always comes back down to the ground.

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