Across the Universe
Directed by Julie Taymor
Written by Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais
From a Story by Julie Taymor, Dick Clement
and Ian Le Frenais
The names are what rubs me weird before everything else: there's Jude, there’s Lucy and Prudence, Max - - -who hammers, Jojo - - -who doesn't get back, Sadie - - -who you can tell is sexy but some dork has to go blurt it out so the children get it, Dr.Robert - - -who’s Bono in a bad wig, Mr.Kite - - -who’s Eddie Izzard. No Eleanor Rigby but then that would’ve hit one more nadir of trite we don't need. No Strawberry Fields either, which would’ve hit yet another and all but ruined this fatally. We do get to hear the words “ . . . she came in through the bathroom window . . .” uttered and right after some girl does come in through a bathroom window,too! A green apple gets held up to the light at some point. Blue meanies cameo as chorus line but no yellow sub. And the Prudence chick holes up in her room just like the real Prudence Farrow did so her friends can coax her out of it by singing guess what song? Lord have Mersey.
Having seen her Titus and her Frida but not her Lion King , it's safe to say I’m no champion of Taymor. Florid and prone to overbear and needs lightening up - - -those are my nits. Florid has a place here much as prone to overbear doesn’t but they both show up regardless. Does her lightening up mean she has to stoop this low,though? When did she get this obvious, this corny, this kid silly? Did she not sift through the vapid rubble of Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)? Is everything now boilable to a pun? Is a little ambiguity too much to ask? Am I being a little too hard on Julie? Is Joe Roth really to blame? Mea culpa, then, for wishfully thinking that the prologue with the quasi-McCartney replicant on a beach cooing Girl to the camera was a portent, that its sublime crackle would keep throughout the piece.
No, I'm not above denying there’s high concept ore in making musical theater out of pop. I'm all for it, in fact. Show tunes suck for the most part. But until someone gets it right, we make do with Mamma Mia! The tricky part's how the ubiquity and presence of the music almost predisposes hanging all onus on it: never mind the libretto, the songs will out. Sure, but you end up with a revue that way. Not a very rock and roll circus, that. Baz knew to vogue on the mash-up. Also knew to fashion vivid new skins and vivid new contexts for his secondhand repertoire - - -some of which were boring at birth so he really had no choice - - - undergirded by Bollywoodian mutant La Boheme. Grotesque as Moulin Rouge often got, the synergies between song and libretto that are crucial to musicals never misfired. Funnish,too.
Not that this isn't, no, maybe not as wildly abandoned, but still a step up for Taymor, funwise. Making musical theater out of Lennon-McCartney does rope in a whole new make and model of tricky. I’m a third-gen Beatlehead who once briefly thought Siouxsie Sioux a genius for writing Dear Prudence but even I can’t sit through half the best-ofs on parade here without making my ears bleed a little from having heard them over and over and over. What are the chances of coming to Lennon-McCartney - - -the canon, not the obscurities, so not Rain, not I'll Cry Instead, not Polythene Pam - - - and sucking fresh sap from its old bones? Unless you're 12 , I'd say slim. Do these chestnuts have any give and flex left? Are they open to interpretation? Can we take a hammer to them instead ? And see what twists form in the shards? Is no one up for it? Should Taymor have asked for Siouxsie's help instead of Joe Cocker's? Oh, she does freshen I Wanna Hold Your Hand up with a churning, wistful eroticism - - -sung by a gorgeous Filipina lesbian cheerleader at that - - -that's better than the frankly crummy original. But if we go by yet two more (enough already) blues-rock vamps through Oh!Darling and Don't Let me Down here , if we go by the cover of Oasis' cover of Revolution, if we go by the riot footage playing over a bed of Helter Skelter, if we go by the overabundance of cliches, if we go by nearly everything else that very little is done to - - -could be what George Martin did for Love is as good as we'll ever get.
When she takes Let It Be to church, Taymor evokes the exhausted disillusionment of the 60s so poignantly that my theory of how she's refracting the era through the music starts to grow cartilage and bone. But the pablum 60s cliche she insists on is so determined, it pretty much second-thinks everything. The performances may be full-on and mad skilled - - -Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy and T.V. Carpio particularly - - -but the characters they sing through are so anonymous it all amounts to karaoke. I'm hanging on to my I Am Sam CD, if it's all the same to you. The songs don't tell a different story other than what we already know when we played those records, and therefore serve no story at all outside of its own nostalgic reflex, parsing as little more than robust but unimaginative covers, glorified retro, Sgt. Pepper Redux - - -and no I'm not being snide, I did like Earth Wind & Fire there, also the Steve Martin bit holds up.
And a softheaded pseudo-musical made from Beatles songs that is ultimately about nothing except maybe about singing Beatles songs is something a lot of people might want to tuck under their pillows. And who can blame 'em? We have shut off our brains for far worse pictures anyway. I'd argue for it somehow working as a valentine to the utopian aura of the Beatles' 60s but I'd stick with it being more often than not supernaturally pretty - - -and we're not even talking about Evan Rachel Wood yet. Taymor has a gift for visual pastry and for the times the gift spikes into odd coordinates of transcendence, this can be quite the ecstatic, empty eyeful. The circus folderol of Being for the Benefit of Mr.Kite may make me want to scoop out my eyes with a spoon, ditto the I Want You and Happiness Is A Warm Gun segments and maybe even Come Together, but I still haven't gotten over the underwater ballet set to Because. Nor those beautiful bleeding strawberries.