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Soundtracking: "Across the Universe"

We're talking the 10th anniversary of Across the Universe in Chris Feil's weekly column on music in the movies!

Across the Universe came to the screens just as jukebox musicals were becoming especially grating on Broadway, but more of a curiosity for the big screen. The film promised stunning Julie Taymor-directed imaginative images set to a massive catalog from The Beatles - and delivered us something a bit more uneven than the creativity explosion that sounds like. Perhaps the high bar already set by invoking the biggest band in the history of popular music was an impossible goal, but the film does provide at least a fun reimagining for some of the best music of the century. A Beatles musical in any context? Yes please (with trepidation)!

The film plays best when it side-steps the plot in its musical sequences...

It’s not just that the plot heavy moments sometimes trivialize the music or result in some odd song choices here and there (“Hold Me Tight”? Sure.), but it feels like separate cinematic agendas competing with one another. It’s as if a movie is interrupted by really gorgeous music videos that are way more compelling than the bland period romance surrounding them.

Plus the film makes some strange choices in presenting the songbook, like creating Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix stand-ins. It’s strange that Taymor wants to tell Joplin and Hendrix’s stories with the Beatles music in a world where the band somehow doesn’t exist. Granted Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther give some of the soundtrack’s best vocals and there’s something a little delicious to the fantasy of experiencing two other legends perform historic music that’s not their own.

The tradeoff seems to be that the film is not too precious with the music. Some songs are almost glibly reimagined, like the healing powers of “Let It Be” thrust onto national crisis or “I Want You” as Army induction acid trip. Sometimes the film can feel like a stream of music videos and that’s precisely when the film is at its best.

It’s in these moments that the movie achieves something more unique than the typical jukebox musical trappings. It feels singular to Taymor’s vision, as if we’ve been invited into what images come to her mind when she puts on her headphones and presses play. She is crafts something personal out of music that so many people have a deep relationship with. Even if what she conjures doesn’t match your imagination, it’s an interesting conversation between musician and listener thrust onto the screen.

But Taymor is also bringing The Beatles to a post-MTV generation, and vice versa. And it’s not just the pop radio-friendly vocals of leads Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood that take it there. Taymor connects the anxieties of the past era’s youth by highlighting the concerns of its own: unjust war, queerness, mounting cultural ambivalence. The reimagined songbook pulls The Beatles to the present without sacrificing their ideology and gaining a generation of Tumblrs in the process.

The film ends up an appropriate homage to The Beatles for staying true to a youthful generation hurtling toward activism. Though Across the Universe may not be be as elegant as the music, but it does connect its audience to its feeling without condescension. No wonder the kids took to this movie, but at the very least, it brought them to The Beatles.

Previous Soundtracking Favorites:
South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut
Almost Famous
The Bodyguard
The Big Chill

...all installments can be found here!

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Reader Comments (6)

In spite of the flaws of this film(or maybe because of them) I unabashedly love it. Across the Universe always comes up when I'm discussing my favorite movies. I adore how these Beatles songs sound in this film. The arrangements and the vocals are just amazing. "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", "Let It Be", and "Come Together" are probably my favorites.

September 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

This is my favorite kind of film, one that does something really different, with huge ambition and endless invention. No, not everything in it works, but an awful lot does. It's impossible to smash the entire history of The Sixties and the entire catalog of The Beatles into one film and have it all run smoothly, but for some people - like my daughter, who was 13 when the film came out and fell HARD for it - this brings those complex times to life in a way that nothing else has.

A couple of personal favorite moments: Evan Rachel Wood's performance of "If I Fell" says more about the simultaneous risk and amazement of starting a relationship than entire other movies manage to. And nobody's ever come up with a better single image to illustrate the quagmire of Vietnam than the one at the end of the army induction sequence: a bunch of recruits in their underwear, straining to carry the Statue of Liberty through the jungle singing "SHE'S SO HEAVY"! Frickin' brilliant.

Julie Taymor and everyone involved should be commended for having made this risky, remarkable, utterly unique film.

September 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDoctor Strange

I remember loving this when it first came out and then seeing it again a couple of years ago and loving it less. But it has its moments, and its heart is in the right place.

Oh, and I totally agree with Doctor Strange re: ERW's rendition of "If I Fell." One of the best I've seen/heard.

September 20, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

I have great memories of seeing it with my partner; we both had no expectations but within minutes we each knew how special it was going to be.

Jim Sturgess is *so* loveable in this; it's such a shame he never became a big star. I remember when people said mean things about the film's Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, but haters be damned.

Favourite songs are I've Just Seen a Face and It Won't Be Long. The cast recording is mostly very good (shame about Bono).

September 20, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

this film always struck me as best watched late at night, stoned off your tits

[i don’t remember a single thing about it]

September 21, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterpar

That bowling scene... is my fave

September 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

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