The long & winding flick

When too many Beatles tunes come together - Help!

Posted: September 14, 2007

As John Lennon said, living is easy with eyes closed, and I'll admit to some easy livin' during the two-hour-plus "Across the Universe."

It's a film musical built around Beatles music and what are meant to be the representational lives of Manhattan bohemians in the '60s - fighting the war, protesting the war, tuning in and turning on, setting out on the road to find themselves, or look for America (oh, rats, that's Simon and Garfunkel).

With a mound of cliches that high, you'd be correct in guessing the confluence of music and image is sometimes trite. Right away, in fact. The credits roll and "Helter Skelter" blares while director Julie Taymor rounds up the usual video suspects - bomb concussions raking the palm trees in Southeast Asia, activists shake their fists, etc.

At other times, the famously eccentric Taymor does herself proud - a highlight is a drug-trip collage of animation, puppets, digital wizardry and inventive photography that features Bono as a guru preaching higher West Coast consciousness.

The movie has its Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix stand-ins, but I'm not sure who Bono's meant to be. He claims both the Walrus AND the egg-man.

Coo-coo-ca-choo.

By that point, I would have paid $100 to hear "Chattanooga Choo Choo." Anything but another Beatles song, with apologies to the Fab Four.

Most musicals feature a dozen or so big numbers. "Across the Universe" features more than 30 as it tells the story of star-crossed lovers (Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess), a reluctant draftee (Joe Anderson) and collaborating musicians (Martin Luther McCoy, Dana Fuchs).

Individually, the songs are quite good - nicely reworked harmonies, good vocal work by the no-name cast. But every song is also a gargantuan musical production with choreography and props. It was about the one-hour mark, when Eddie Izzard appeared as Mr. Kite before a gang of gigantic blue meanies, that I felt Maxwell's silver hammer come down on my head.

The Beatles wrote a zillion terrific songs, and you realize with something akin to horror that

you're going to hear every one.

Every character has a Beatlesian name - Jo Jo, Sadie, Lucy, Jude, and each gets his own song. It makes for a long day. (Dear Prudence has locked herself in the closet. Do you think she'll come out to play? Maybe if we all get together and sing . . . )

Anytime you see any object that's ever been mentioned in a Beatles song (O merciless gods, it's a strawberry!), you know you're in for it. I think I made it through all 130 minutes without seeing a yellow submarine. There were a few trips to the restroom.

I don't know what "Across the Universe" will do to the Beatles legacy, probably nothing, but it will certainly burnish Taymor's rep as a stylist unafraid of the outlandish (remember "Titus"?).

Here, it's often a case of too much, too far. Case in point - a group of Asian water nymphs who appear to be modeled after the naked, napalmed Vietnamese girl in the famous photo.

Is there really a Beatles song for that?

Pop music has, more and more, supplanted original composition as a musical accompaniment to film, and there's always been something lazy and facile about this nexus.

Directors often seize upon a single lyrical phrase or a single hook or riff to augment a scene. The rest of the song is often unrelated to, or opposed to, what is happening on screen, and is just jettisoned.

It's rare to find a pop standard that suits a film perfectly, organically, and maybe it's ludicrous to expect that kind of union.

Taking 30 songs and hoping to hammer them into something that fits a generic generational saga is probably a fool's errand. *

Produced by Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd, Matthew Gross, directed by Julie Taymor, written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, distributed by Sony Pictures.

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