Across the Universe
You don’t so much watch this movie as you drop it, like a tab of Owsley‘s Finest Acid back in the ‘60s. Roger Ebert said in his review that in the ‘60s, there was The Beatles, and there was everybody else. Some of those everybody elses were damn good, and played a big part, but he’s right. This movie contains 33 songs by The Beatles. Think of that. It also takes the opportunity to reference dozens of Beatlebilia things, such as the concert on the roof at Abbey Road, coming in through the bathroom window, Maxwell’s silver hammer, and hundreds of other things from that crazy decade, from Janis Joplin to Ken Kesey‘s Magic Bus. Some of the songs are performed by familiar faces, such as Bono doing “I Am the Walrus.” Joe Cocker is particularly good in “Come Together.” But most of them are done by kids who weren’t even born when this music was new, and they do a terrific job. Many of the songs are completely re-interpreted, but not messed with in any way. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” for instance, is entirely new when sung sorrowfully by a lesbian who knows she will never hold the hand of the woman she loves. Can you imagine Janis doing “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road”? Well, you don’t have to, Dana Fuchs positively channels the Pearl.
The project was conceived and executed by Julie Taymor, a real genius at choreography and production design. Time after time it knocked my socks off. Stunned me. I found myself in tears three times, once for a sad scene, once for a scene that was so incredibly beautiful there was no way else to respond, and once for … sheer nostalgia, I guess. Everything was possible back then. This movie is my life, from about 15 to 30. Oh, not literally. It’s mostly in Greenwich Village, and I was in the Haight. I didn’t go to Nam, but spent a lot of my life avoiding it. I never got politically active, though I marched. But the riots, the assassinations, the protests, the descent into political stupidity, all those icons and benchmarks and good and bad events now so far in the past… I was there. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I made some bad mistakes (did any of you get through those ages and not?), but there was magic in the air. I feel so sorry for those who missed most of it by being good and responsible, or all of it by not being born yet, but if you did miss it, you can get a glimpse of what it was like in this movie. My friend Spider says it’s better than any documentary, and he’s right.
The people who don’t like it (and there are some) mostly didn’t like how the plot was sometimes stretched in an obvious way to accommodate the songs. I can see it; a few times I thought they were straining a bit. But it didn’t matter. In a conventional musical the songs are written to advance the plot. Cool. But here it’s been reversed. These songs were written (though not consciously) to define the world, and it seems right that they should now define the direction of a work of art that breaks all the molds. Don’t apply your usual standards to this, they won’t fit. Though it is a love story, it’s not really about the characters, except as they reflect all of us in that time. Everyboy, Everygirl, Everyhippie, Everysoldier. And the music. It was an age driven by the music, and the kings of the music were The Beatles. This is the only movie I’ve ever seen where I walked into the theater singing the songs. (Once more, I thank Roger E. for that insight.) I knew every word to every song, every chord change, every harmony. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Is love all you need? Sigh. Probably not … but we never really got to try it, did we? Not all the way. We were screwed, and we screwed ourselves. John Lennon was assassinated. I guess that’s what you get when you ask people to come together, over you. But maybe if we’d tried a little harder …