Look man, I’m pro gay rights, pro gay marriage. I’m all for gays from A-Z, Alan Cumming to Ziggy. So don’t take it the wrong way when I say I’m not the type of dude who intentionally watches a musical. It just ain’t me. If I’m gonna make an exception to that policy it’s gonna take a hell of an extenuating circumstance, something air tight. I haven’t even watched that one with Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin, that’s how strict I am. But for Julie Taymor I went out and got a waiver.
Now, I have been accused of being sweet on Julie Taymor, but nothing could be further from the truth. Actually I’ve seen interviews with her and I’m afraid of her. If I had a chance to hang out with her I don’t think I would do it. About the only scenario where I would feel safe and comfortable would be some sort of puppetry workshop in a neutral public place, but I’m not into puppets so that’s out. Despite these feelings, I also think Taymor is a genius. This is based on TITUS and on a book I read about her. She’s an opera-directing, puppet-carving, globetrotting, volcano-climbing, secret-forest-ritual-witnessing, visionary genius. So even though FRIDA was a mixed bag, and even though this is a musical, and especially even though it’s a musical where the actors sing Beatles songs and are named after Beatles lyrics and their story illustrates the turbulent political climate and cultural shifts of the 1960s (oh for cryin out loud), I decided to give it a try.
I’m not gonna paint myself as brave though. I hesitated. I kind of put it off and since it was a low profile movie it very well could’ve left theaters before I got a chance to see it and then I could’ve waited for video and then kind of forgot about it for a while before I got to it. And I would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those young girls who made it kind of a cult hit and caused it to stick around longer than movies usually do these days. I realize that this will lose me that feminism award I was about to get for praising Julie Taymor’s artistic vision regardless of gender, but ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is definitely a girl movie. I mean, it opens with a doey-eyed, shaggy-haired, English-accented dreamboat on a beach, singing about a girl! Let’s face it, only young girls are gonna be accepting of that type of behavior. A guy might get hot watching a woman sing some sultry tune in a night club, but not on a beach or a rooftop, or a street. There are limits. There are rules.
So because of the singing, and because of this ’60s/Beatles thing, you gotta accept right away that this movie is gonna be as corny as Hell during Autumn. You know how the movie TRON takes place inside a computer, this is kind of like that if it took place inside somebody’s collection of Beatles records. So the characters have names like Jude, Lucy, Prudence, Jojo, Dr. Robert, Mr. Kite, Dr. Octopus I believe, I forget what else. Luckily no Eleanor Rigby and thank Christ no Sergeant Pepper. I actually read on IMDB trivia that they had a Sergeant Pepper in an earlier draft but then I believe they changed it to Dr. Pepper and then finally they took it out. I’m glad they backed down but if it was me actually my compromise would be to have a sergeant in it and have him played by Barry Pepper, but not ever say his name.
Early in the movie there are signs of rough waters ahead. The opening scene has a bunch of animated newspaper headlines superimposed over breaking waves as a deep voiced woman (who later turns out to be the Janis Joplin type character Sadie) butchers “Helter Skelter.” It’s ironic that the Manson Family painted “Helter Skelter” on the wall in blood after one of their crimes, because that’s exactly what she does to this song, she stabs it to death and writes on the wall with its blood. That combination of imagery and sound pretty much exemplifies everything you feared about a movie like this being corny and about using Beatles songs but not the original recordings. Also there’s a scene early on where a guy says something about what’s gonna happen “when I’m 64” and you think oh jesus, that’s what we’re in for here? Luckily most of the other lyric references I didn’t notice, so they must not have been too intrusive.
One thing I was glad about, they live in an apartment in the Village. They do not all live in a yellow submarine.
Actually I think you don’t have to be as forgiving of the Beatles stuff as you do the sixties stuff. I mean, you could pretty much make a list of what’s gonna be in this movie, you would be right on most counts. You got the young goodie two shoes with a military boyfriend, he dies in Vietnam and she joins the student protest movement (she’s played by Evan Rachel Wood of SKANDER HALIM’S PRETTY PERSUASION fame). You got a guy who gets drafted, thinks about dodging, goes to ‘Nam. You got the Weather Underground making bombs. Cops beating protesters. People travelling on a rainbow-colored hippie bus. A Jimi Hendrix type. A Janis Joplin type. A Timothy Leary type and accompanying drug freakout scene. Race riots. Watching a TV finding out about the assassination of Martin Luther King. Square parents that don’t understand your hippie lifestyle.
On the other hand, they don’t waste alot of time with an experimenting-with-drugs plot (Taymor’s visuals get psychedelic even when there’s no drugs involved). When the character Max is in the veteran’s ward, 5 sexy nurses all played by Salma Hayek dance for him and shoot him up with a syringe that contains a bright blue liquid and a miniature naked dancing Salma Hayek. I bet you naked Salma Hayek juice is even harder to kick than morphine but fortunately they don’t waste our time with a plot about that.
And maybe the use of the Beatles songs has an advantage too because that way all the songs are Beatles songs, they don’t have a FORREST GUMP type Greatest Hits of the 1960s soundtrack. Also I was happy that Daniel Stern wasn’t narrating it from the future, that would’ve been lame.
I guess I wouldn’t know, but if you’re somebody who digs musicals I’m gonna guess this is a pretty decent one. It’s got all the musical shit but it’s cinematic, puttng the people into real locations, giving it a visual reality before it spins off into fantasyland. And I’m not completely sure why but for me anyway this one was easier to stomach than most musicals. Yes, you got dudes with big smiles on their faces hopping around and dancing and singing to each other. But many times a giant puppet can and will show up. Or a crazy animated circus show. If a guy is reporting to the draft office then the painting of Uncle Sam is gonna reach out of the poster, point at him and sing to him. Then he’s gonna get strapped into a big metal machine that does medical tests on him and next thing you know the draftees are gonna be in their boxers carrying the Statue of Liberty across a miniature model of Vietnam. I bet they didn’t have that in CHICAGO.
Also, even if they’re often bad versions of the songs, at least they are good songs. To me alot of this type of shit they’re singing songs that weren’t even good in the first place. So that gives this one an advantage.
I don’t know, man. Everything about the movie screams lame, but I gotta admit, I somehow enjoyed watching it, it kept my interest, I did not groan too much. But every once in a while you do get a little chuckle like when Evan Rachel Wood is upset with the British guy, she says “I can’t believe you would do that!” and what he did was he went into her protest committee office and had a musical number.
It’s nice that some of the main emotional scenes of the movie don’t really have to do with the ’60s cliches. For example the main character is dealing with immigration issues and with meeting the father who abandoned his mother before he was born. So you can get involved in that, or if not there’s something cool to look at like when a cheerleader walks through a football practice singing and the players keep flying and flipping past her violently but she never flinches or gets hit.
There were some dance numbers in here that with their rhythmic sound effects made me think of the good old days when Michael Jackson was an actual guy who made incredible videos and not just a spooky ghost story from the past who the young singers all try to dance like. I mean, no offense to Justin Timberlake, Usher, Chris Brown and whoever else they got now, but part of the reason it was cool when Michael Jackson danced like that was because HE WAS MICHAEL JACKSON. So it made sense for him to dance like Michael Jackson. He was Michael Jackson, you’re some dipshit from the school talent show who, because of low standards, Bush, etc., got millions of dollars and some blowjobs and treated as a celebrity because you could copy those moves better than the average person. But you’re still a dipshit in a talent show and you know it. It is your secret shame. Every time you slant your hat you feel it like a needle in your heart.
Anyway the reason I bring this up is that ACROSS THE UNIVERSE made me think of Michael Jackson videos, TITUS made me think of Michael Jackson videos… I think it’s obvious what needs to be done here. Julie Taymor needs a subject that can truly suit her, Michael Jackson needs a kick in his freaky ass to get him in gear again. These two need to hole up in a haunted temple on some mountain somewhere with a live band, a team of dancers, some painters and storyboard artists, a green screen, some digital cameras, Rick Baker’s makeup team, two shamans, a couple giraffes and a documentary crew and they need to plan out the epic Imax 3-D musical that they ABSOLUTELY MUST make together.
Fuck THE LION KING. Fuck “Thriller.” After this nobody will even talk about those anymore, except as early works by great artists. This is the movie where Michael declares I Don’t Give A Fuck and waves his freak flag so high it pokes out of Earth’s atmosphere. And Taymor announces – in images, not words – that TITUS was not a fluke and she really was here to flip cinema over like a rock and reveal all the possibilities squirming around beneath it. Michael will play a dancing, singing Phantom of the Opera, an iconic screen legend somewhere between Vincent Price, Gene Kelly, James Brown, Jodorowsky, E.T. and the Elephant Man. With Taymor’s help Michael will dip a quill straight into his pyramid shaped alien brain and paint right onto the screen with it. Dance numbers like “Thriller” and “Smooth Criminal” covered in acid, dipped in chocolate and fed to one of those psychedelic toads.
I mean seriously. You can’t tell me this wouldn’t be a cult classic for the ages. I am using The Secret now. I am visualizing it. Shooting those white thought beams out there in the world to make this happen. Julie Taymor, Michael Jackson, coming next summer. Imax people, get working on new 3-D goggles that have a lens for the third eye.
Anyway, I almost forgot I was talking about ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, which shall forever be known as that one Beatles movie Julie Taymor made before she changed the world forever with the Michael Jackson movie. Here’s the thing about these ’60s nostalgia movies. For younger generations, the ’60s doesn’t have all that much meaning. They can’t feel the anger with the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, the assassinations. They just know the symbols, the visuals, the soundtrack. It might as well be the old west or the pirate age, it’s not something they can imagine being a part of their world. It’s a Halloween costume. And the more we use those images and sounds as shorthand for life in the ’60s, the more their meaning blows away and dissipates like smoke.
I’m sure part of Taymor’s goal was to show young people what was going on in the ’60s so they could draw parallels to today. To show them that they can fight against the war, incite a revolution, sing Beatles songs to each other. But sadly I doubt this connects with most young people on any level deeper than GREASE or HAIRSPRAY (Travolta in a drag fat suit version). Young people in general do not have a personal connection to the war. They don’t know anybody that’s in it and they know there’s no chance of being sent themselves. They don’t see it on TV because nobody’s watching anymore and nobody’s showing it anymore, it’s old news. They don’t know the excitement of music because, see above, re: Justin Timberlake. The kids that are passionate about real music are mostly listening to a bunch of mopers in sweaters pouting through their guitars. I’m not gonna say there’s no great music right now, because I’m sure there is some hidden somewhere in a vault deep beneath the earth where human ears can’t hear it. But 95% of kids today will never experience music like what The Beatles were then, or what Hendrix was. If there is a modern equivalent – and sorry, there isn’t – it’s not gonna be on TV or radio or their ringtones so they’ll never know. You say you want a revolution, well, you know – actually you never said that, because you don’t give a shit, and are not actually totally clear on what a revolution is anyway. Wasn’t that the civil war or something? one of the like, way long time ago wars, maybe world war 1.
And the thing is, we don’t need to relive the ’60s. Those good parts of the ’60s that the movie celebrates, those are like the first Michael Jackson. You can’t have a second Michael Jackson or a second ’60s. I’ve been to more war protests than I can count, and I’ve seen first hand people trying to direct lightning to strike in the same place again. And it ain’t working. We need to blaze new trails, crack open a new world. Stop trying to walk backwards in footprints that are already there.
So, nice try Taymor. I hope this works as more than nostalgia for the old and a period piece for the young. But I’m not convinced it does. But it’s not too shabby. Seriously though think about this Michael Jackson idea.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.