“Across The Universe” Gets Lost In A Nostalgic Haze

andybeta | September 28, 2007 2:00 am
Ed. note: Here’s another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he travels back to the ’60s with Julie Taymor, the Beatles back catalogue, and the Fab Four-created world of Across the Universe:

I saw a film today, oh boy. About how a working class-band from the industrial town of Liverpool–a borough of Merseyside, England–soundtracked the American experience for countless privileged suburbanites who were totally innocent before they learned life lessons about love and death and stuff like that and grew up to make lots of money so as to dictate the listening habits of all subsequent generations.

Well, Across the Universe, the second full-length film from Tony Award-winning director Julie Taymor, isn’t quite as described in the sentence above, in that there is actually no British band extant in the film, yet their presence is inescapable. From the songs heard on the radio to those sung between people, from the inane snatches of dialogue exchanged between characters to the very names of these people (Jude, Maxwell, Lucy, Prudence, Sadie, Rita, Jojo, etc.), this group simultaneously is infused in the world, transcends the world, and is absent from it, making for the most extreme example of Transtheism glimpsed in popular cinema. Which is to say that these Liverpudlians are more popular than Jesus.

To best appreciate Across the Universe, an intimate familiarity with this British group’s discography, lexicon, legacy, and mythos is crucial, lest you miss a stack of rib-rattling wink-wink nudges-nudges, such as when Prudence (a Vietnamese lesbian) comes in through the bathroom window, gets greeted with “Hello Hello” and says she comes from “Nowhere, Man.” Later on, when Prudence is trapped in the closet (sadly there’s no R. Kelly in this world) and her roomies sing “Dear Prudence” to her, it’s coupled with a visual component that feels like some counter-culture episode of Friends. On acid, naturally.

Weirdest is how the film must dance around the issues of the sixties while scrubbing itself to a PG-13 façade, making NBC’s 1999 miniseries The ’60s seem like a gritty, street-level documentary in comparison. Here’s what was “evil” back then: record execs, the war, SDS SDR radicals, “The Man.” When Jude and Maxwell bond during the dance sequence of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” they pantomime taking drags off of an invisible joint. As the stresses weigh on singer Sadie (who, it should be noted, is both “sexy” and a dead ringer for Janis Joplin), she deals with the mounting pressures not by snorting mountains of coke and smack, but by having another sip of whisky.

Across the Universe does note the seeming cultural clashes in the beginning of the film, jumping between idyllic American sock hops in white satin and the grimy black-leather drinking spots of Liverpool, showing that both worlds are united through music. When “Let it Be” plays during a race riot and a white soldier’s funeral, we’re meant to realize how this music unifies, no matter the skin color. Or, to take the words of token black righteous soul brother African-American representative Jojo (who wraps Sadie’s scarf around his afro and conspicuously plays electric guitar like the only other African-American guitarist in the history of the world, Jimi Hendrix): “Music’s the only thing that makes sense anymore.”

And yet the film not only interprets these vivacious pop songs with all the subtlety of a soused blues bar band, but constantly makes this music act as sheer adherent for its confusing montages. After Jude fails to sketch a green apple for his friend’s record label, he resorts to squishing produce to the sound of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” said berries becoming cluster bombs, grenades, blood bags, and the Strawberry Jamz record logo (which must’ve really steamed the B**tles-averse Animal Collective). Elsewhere, a homeless man (played by Joe Cocker), a pimp, and some hoes sing “Come Together” to welcome the characters to the East Village. Dr. Robert (played by Bono) rocks a cowboy hat and hideous Fu Manchu while sneering out “I Am the Walrus” as the characters take a polarized, fish-eyed school bus ride out to a hallucinatory puppet show helmed by Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard), all of which serves as some sort of send-off for Maxwell, about to get shipped off to Vietnam.

Here the most telling appropriation of said band’s back catalog appears. A Big Brother-esque poster of Uncle Sam screams out “I Want You” and Max undergoes a nightmarish dance sequence right out of The Wall: square-faced soldiers strip him down, check his teeth, collect his piss, dress him for deployment. Boots squash the foliage of Vietnam underfoot, the camera pulling back to reveal the troops lugging a cumbersome Statue of Liberty, her torch acting as battering ram as they scream out: “She’s So Heavy.” It explicitly comments not just on America’s foreign policy in war, but also in culture. Anyone younger than fifty might feel similarly oppressed, while the bald men who hummed (in the wrong key) throughout the film might not know what my complaint is.

Simple: I too got indoctrinated into this religion, I too came of age to the same soundtrack and subsequently embraced its iconography and symbolism, despite it being some thirty years on. I fell in love with a girl while singing the lyrics to “Run For Your Life,” lost my virginity to “Revolution #9,” had my mind blown by “Dig It,” and–when a dear friend (who similarly worshipped such deities) took his own life–I found solace in the strains of “Blackbird.” There is a profound enlightenment to be found within this pop band’s career, in how youthful uniformity gives way to discovery of self and the subsequent onset of adulthood and its attendant responsibilities, but that’s not how Across the Universe plays it. Instead, the film opts for knee-jerk nostalgia and an immature (rather than childlike) look back through a glass onion.

I’d be remiss in not admitting that I teared up during Across the Universe, as certain chord progressions stirring up deep-seated memories, but Sounder and Old Yeller get me all misty-eyed too, and I wouldn’t subject myself to two hours of psychedelic pet-offing either. It’s a cheap trick to use such “universal” music to simply trigger the audience’s personal remembrances of such things past. Seated in the theatre, I felt like a fool on a hill.