Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cinematographicus: Across the Universe (2007)


We picked this one up at Target last week. I remember being intrigued by it when it came out, hearing classmates review it positively, thinking I might see it, and then forgetting about it. The main idea is that it is a love story / hippie drama musical pieced together out of Beatles songs. The first comparison that comes to mind is Mama Mia!. Except that Across the Universe was not on Broadway, and of course, that it is an insult to all coolness to compare the finest rock songs of the 20th century to the disco drivel of Abba.

Watching this movie is kind of like watching two hours of MTV---old school MTV, when there were actually music videos instead of a mind-numbing, horizonless expanse of "reality" TV programming. Like any decent music video, there's a heavy emphasis on creative camerawork, and making the visual aesthetic reflect the music. The difference is that there is some plot continuity, less overt hero-worship of musicians, and no straight band-playing scenes.

No, it's actually closer to Moulin Rouge, both stylistically and thematically. Both films depart from the standard stage-inspired musical template by weaving the music into the plot, and keeping the story going through the songs. This makes for a more pleasant viewing experience than the stage-based template where the plot is continuously put on hold to show off the singing or dancing abilities of the actors. It's better adapted to the screen, where long singing and dancing scenes can invoke more yawns than smiles. See the 1965 film version of Rogers & Hammerstein's Cinderella as an example of the worst offenders.

And both films deal heavily in the ideal of the restricting and destructive nature of society pitted against the liberating ideals of love, sex, music, art, and of course, drugs. The absinthe-happy bohemians of Moulin Rouge are a pretty straight parallel to the psychadelic hippies living in New York in Across the Universe.

But the hippie narrative departs from substance-induced reveries and love fest of Moulin Rouge, when Across the Universe portrays the social upheaval of the 60s---the Detroit riots, the assassination of MLK, and the specter of Vietnam brooding over the whole film throughout. This adds a bit more weight and substance to the film (but not that much---it's still a musical). The Vietnam sequences also create some of the more interesting visual imagery---a spectral, almost skeletal Uncle Sam singing out of a recruiting poster and an Iwo Jima-esque group of young men in underwear and combat boots, struggling to carry an enormous statue of liberty over rice paddies and jungles in "I want you (she's so heavy)," and flaming strawberries dropping out of an airplane's bomb bay over the jungle in "Strawberry fields."

Like with the Beatles' own music, there's also a thematic progression. The opening scene is a sad, seaside rendition of the opening lines of "Girl" basically lifted from Moulin Rouge's rendition of Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy." The next scene opens to "It won't be long" with a picturesque sock-hop scene and continues with stereotypical high-school scenes of football players and cheerleaders. But by the end, the darker and more more psychedelic tunes dominate as it all takes a downward spiral. The low point is "Happiness is a warm gun" when we see one of the main characters, shell-shocked in a military hospital, sung to and tranquilized by a nurse played by Selma Hayek. But it all ends predictably with "All you need is love."

I had two favorite scenes. The first, "Let it be," is sung to the backdrop of the Detroit riots cross edited with scenes of a family learning of a soldier's death. It eventually turns into a gospel song at a funeral, and is actually kind of moving.



The second, "Revolution" shows off the integration of music, and especially of lyrics, into the plot. It's also just a great song.



There are things I could have done without. There was a scene, for example, where the main character, who is clichédly an artist, draws his sleeping naked girlfriend. We see a nipple. But it's not just the nudity that bugged me about the scene, it was the uncanny parallel to the naked drawing scene in Titanic. Anything that reminds me of Titanic gets minus 10 points at the outset. But this was doubly wrong because the chain of connections leads incestuously back onto itself: Titanic starred Leonardo DiCaprio, who also starred in Romeo and Juliet which was directed by Baz Luhrmann (who names their kid Baz, anyway?), who also directed Moulin Rouge, which serves in many ways as a template for Across the Universe. That's only four connections. That's like marrying your cousin and is totally unacceptable. Unless of course your cousin is Kevin Bacon. Then it's inevitable.

And the psychadelic descent, while interesting (and while maybe an accurate portrayal of the spirit of the 1960s), got a bit too weird for me. On the up side, it did include Bono making a cameo appearance to sing "I am the walrus."

Overall, my reaction is positive, but don't set your expectations too high.

5 comments:

ke said...

Good work, friend. I'd hoped to see this flick, but never got around to it and wondered if it were worth my time at all.
Extra points for outlining the Titanic-Across the universe web.

The Shark said...

I was curious about the film but learned about some of the content and thus avoided it. I did hear some of the soundtrack, though, and liked about 45% of the covers (which, to me, is a decent amount).

Nothing beats the "Hey Jude" opening of "Royal Tenenbaums," though.

apyknowzitall said...

Thanks so much for reviewing this. I've been debating whether or not to pick it up for fear that it might be another Sergent Peppers with Frampton.

JKC said...

Yes! The opening sequence of the Royal Tenenbaums is a triumph of a Beatles song used in cinema.

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