What was the first Beatles album you’ve listened to? Mine was a frayed cassette tape copy of “Help! exchanged for a film magazine a classmate of mine borrowed in the sixth grade and never gave back.
Perhaps the most magical quality of the Beatles classics is their strong sense of time and place, a distant reflection on a past culture, ideals and mood.
For the last 38 years, no one dared to touch the Beatles’ shrine, especially in film. In fact, due primarily to high copyright fees, few Beatles tunes made it to the silver screen since the band’s breakthrough in 1962.
Apart from the Beatles’ own starring movies “Help, “Yellow Submarine and “Let it Be, only a handful of films like 1978’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1986’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and 2001’s “I Am Sam succeeded in using the band’s music, often to remarkable results.
None of these works though – including the Beatles’ own vehemently odd TV special “Magical Mystery Tour – could’ve foreseen what American filmmaker Julie Taymor (of the greatly inventive Frida Kahlo biopic “Frida ) would accomplish with the music of the world’s most popular musical outfit.
“Across the Universe is a film with tremendous imagination, vitality and a big heart that had critics divided since its premiere last year.
“Across the Universe is entirely constructed on the Beatles back catalogue and characters. The story is thin, overtly sentimental and bears nothing to reality of the 60s. Taymor is not concerned with presenting an accurate historical document of the Vietnam era, when the film is set. This is a film, first and foremost, about the Beatles’ music: an exceedingly whimsical, nostalgic account of the period and a visualization of the Beatles’ tunes in the form of a story.
The plot is a simple, classic boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.
Newcomer Jim Sturgess plays Jude, a cheeky dockworker from Liverpool traveling to the US in search of his lost father. He crosses paths with Max (Joe Anderson) a rebel-rouser who, against the will of his rather conservative, middle-class family, decides to drop out of college and move to New York.
Jude soon falls for Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood from “Thirteen ), an idealistic, angelic young woman who turns to political activism after her boyfriend’s death in Vietnam.
The three move to a bohemian flat owned by the Janis Joplin-like Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and are soon joined by guitarist Jo-Jo (Martin Luther), a super cool, softer reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix following the murder of his younger brother in the Detroit riots. Rounding out the bunch is Prudence (T.V. Carpio) a closeted Asian-American lesbian from Ohio who develops an unrequited crush on Sadie.
The freewheeling, dreamy first half steadily darkens as Max gets drafted, Lucy’s idealism clashes with Jude’s apathy and Sadie compromises her art.
From the first scene of the film, which sees a forlorn Jude humming a stripped-down, sad take of “Girl in front of a deserted beach, Taymor clearly declares her intentions: Reconstructing the Beatles music in a different context.
Some of the arrangements, such as “Across the Universe, “Something or “All My Loving are faithful to the original compositions. Many others are conceived in a radically different way, though all are set against a draining series of jaw-dropping phantasmagoric images that require several viewings to fully grasp.
Take “I Wanna Hold Your Hand, for example. Always regarded as a cute ode to young love, the song is transformed into a heartbreaking ballad about yearning and unfulfilled love on the hands of Caprio’s character.
John Lennon’s random ramblings of “I Am the Walrus set the stage for a hallucinatory bus ride led by Dr. Robert (U2’s Bono) where subjects seep into phosphoric, surrealistic rainbow colors.
Most impressive though is “I Want You (She’s So Heavy). Upon entering the army recruitment center, an animated life-sized figure of Uncle Sam comes to life and points a large finger at Max while uttering the opening lines of the swaggering tune. He’s soon stripped down to his underwear by a group of robotic soldiers donning the same menacing mask, and the next shot shows a unit of young recruits, all in their underwear, carrying a giant Statue of Liberty.
There are literary doses of mind-boggling images stuffing every scene and tune; from the naked floating bodies of “Because, the cartoonish, Monty Python-like psychedelic scenes of “For the Benefit of Mr Kite to the bleeding strawberries, pinned on a white sheet of “Strawberry Fields Forever.
“Across the Universe contains 33 Beatles tracks, hardly any miss the mark.
The sense of innocence, jubilance and vivacious aura of the Beatles tunes are accurately captured in a backdrop of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.
The myth of the 1960s was forever shattered by Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup and the Rolling Stones harrowing documentary “Gimme Shelter.
For Taymor, the same period will always be a place of boundless optimism, of free love and unbroken companionship.
“Across the Universe is a fantasy, an otherworldly reverie of pure euphoria.
It does not cater to everyone; Beatles fans might dislike it for fiddling with the unapproachable classics while non-Beatles fans will not enjoy it as much as those familiar with the music. Some may even find it cheesy and odd.
The film is a unique experience indeed, unlike any musical I’ve ever seen before. It firmly sets its terms early on, and you either accept it or you don’t. For those willing to fully immerse themselves in the film, there are great rewards.
I was accompanied both times I’ve seen the film with equally fanatic Beatles fans. Both times I decided to drop all my reserves and kept chanting every tune as loud as I could, much to the disgruntlement of some of my fellow theatergoers. The second time in particular, I was joined by random viewers from different age groups, acting equally goofy and leaving the theater with a huge grin on their faces.
Seriously, how many movies allow you to sing your favorite tunes, provide a vast nirvana of pure escapism and fill you with so much joy?
“Across the Universe is currently screening at Cinemania, Golden Stars theater, CityStars. The film’s theatrical run ends next Tuesday. Tel: 012 120 3322s