Perhaps you’ve seen the trailer. It features a whisper thin slacker type sitting by the seashore, melodiously requesting that somebody listen to his story “all about the girl who came to stay”. For a moment, the feeling seems sad and somber, the dark, dreary setting matching the mood and atmosphere of the plea perfectly. Still, there’s something gnawing at the back of your brain, a familiarity that keeps you from getting completely lost in the scene. And then it hits you. The actor, Jim Sturgess, is not presenting an original sonic sentiment. No, he’s channeling John Lennon circa 1965 and Rubber Soul, crooning the Beatles’ tune “Girl” as part of a…what’s this? A musical based on the compositions of the Fab Four? Apparently, current filmmakers have learned nothing from the past.
In an industry not noted for its intellectualized approach to art, the notion of using the creative canon of cultural icons John, Paul, George and Ringo is not a new idea, but it certainly is a bad one. With at least two certified cinematic disasters looming in the medium’s rear view mirror, how anyone could greenlight a project which melds a myriad of Beatles songs into a operetta-like look at the most tumultuous time in US history screams of stupidity – or at the very least, short sightedness. Yet now, with the trailer for director Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe showing up in theaters, it appears that some suit drank the creative Kool-Aid on such a cockeyed conceit. And the potential apocalypse is up on the screen for everyone to see.
In brief, the preview offers up the story of Jude, a naïve Englishmen who arrives in America and gets a job as a dockworker. Instantly, he is swept up in the peace and love movements of the ‘60s. All throughout the various meet-cute moments and supposedly iconic vistas, the reworked hits of the greatest band ever waft in the background and pour from the pouting mouths of the frighteningly young cast. We even see snippets of what looks like a dream/LSD sequence, with British comedian Eddie Izzard as a diabolical circus ringmaster (Mr. Kite, anyone?). Things change, however, when the Army calls Jude’s pal. Before you know it, hippies are doing choreographed dance moves in the middle of Central Park, while soldiers scream in rice patties, “Helter Skelter” blaring in the background.
Sounds potentially promising, right? Maybe, thanks to Taymor’s stint as the director and creative force behind the Broadway smash The Lion King. That’s no small feat, considering she was starting with a cartoon as the source material for a live action extravaganza. Perhaps she can find a way to make this work. After all, Milos Forman took the similarly formless rock opera Hair and found a way to make its divergent collection of poptones perform in tandem to tell an actually story. So why not Taymor? Well, the comparison between Universe and the 1979 Forman film is apt, especially since this new show looks like a direct rip-off of the previous production. From the aforementioned park sequence to the mimicked moment when a young man faces the military draft board, there’s a clear filmic familiarity capable of breeding a serious amount of creative contempt.
It’s not just the idea that a series of songs, disconnected from each other in time, theme, style and substance, are being jerryrigged into an equally narrow-minded view of one of history’s most important and multifaceted eras. No, the recent trend, even on the Great White Way, is to take an artist’s entire catalog (say that of Abba, or Bob Dylan), draft a dodgy script that tries to link the material together, and present it with a fair amount of verve and generational gusto. Pop culture is fueled by youth, and with many of the sources several DECADES out of the limelight, such songfests had to appear fresh and innovative – at least to this just out of diapers demographic. There are also hints of knowing nostalgia, a determination that boomers and their ever increasing outer fringes will find the trip down memory lane wistful and warm.
But the Beatles – they’ve proven downright deadly before. Taymor is not the first filmmaker to tackle the quartet’s potent portfolio, and before you start screaming over a certain Peter Frampton/Bee Gee debacle entitled Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, let’s recall the first real Fab Four fiasco. Back in 1976, documentarian Susan Winslow was approached by 20th Century Fox with a very strange proposition indeed. The studio was looking for a novel way to exploit their vast vault of World War II battle and newsreel footage, and they thought that juxtaposing it against the Beatles would be a perfect commentary on the importance of both entities. Monty Python ex-Pat Terry Gilliam reportedly rejected the idea as “sacrilegious”, but Winslow thought she could make it work.
Of course, the still-feuding boys would have nothing to do with the project, so all of their songs were re-recorded by ‘famous’ rock acts of the era. Elton John’s previous hit version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was dug up, while other artists like Helen Reddy (“The Fool on the Hill”), The Four Seasons (“We Can Work it Out”) and the Brothers Johnson (“Hey Jude”) came onboard specifically for the film. There were some interesting takes on the material – vaudeville crooner Frankie Laine’s version of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, Rod Stewart’s sizzling “Get Back” and Tina Turner’s dynamic cover of “Come Together” – but the problem wasn’t the music itself. No, once placed alongside scenes of battle and Nazi propaganda, the entire project took on a weird, almost diabolic tone.
Try as she might, Winslow could not save her film, now entitled All This and World War II (a supposed satiric stab at irony, ala the British dance hall dramatization of WWI, Oh What a Lovely War! ). A massive soundtrack album was released, but the project was eventually shelved. For many, it was the only logical choice. After all, the very idea that music created in an era of freedom and revolution would be used as the backdrop to an overview of international atrocities in the name of power seemed ludicrous. Currently available only in bootleg editions, the final product is actually fairly entertaining. The songs may suffer every now and again, but the context they provide on the War is actually very astute.
All This and World War II appeared to be the last word on adapting the music of the Beatles to the big screen. Still, the lads from Liverpool remained as popular as ever, and when music executive Roger Stigwood was looking for a way to channel the reputation of his prized act The Bee Gees into other lucrative venues, an off Broadway production from 1974 seemed like the perfect solution. Stigwood’s RSO Records label had released the massive hit double LP score for the disco draw Saturday Night Fever, as well as the hit soundtrack to the movie version of Grease. With the Brothers Gibb under contract, and a desire to work with then Comes Alive powerhouse Peter Frampton, the genesis of future flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was born.
Stigwood had it all figured out. He would hire the former band’s legendary producer, George Martin, tap famous faces (Steve Martin, George Burns) and rock acts (Alice Cooper, Aerosmith) to play important characters, and dress the whole thing up in a silly psychedelic dreamscape that was part frilly fantasy, part scathing attack of the debauchery-laced record biz. He hired Cooley High/Car Wash director Michael Schultz to helm the project, opened up his checkbook, and plunked down a whopping $18 million for the budget. Now, that may not seem like a lot, but only the year before, Steven Spielberg’s epic UFO thriller Close Encounters of the Third Kind cost a scant $20 million. Certain he would make back his money on the inevitable record release, Stigwood saw nothing but dollar signs.
Of course, said symbols all ended up in red on the bottom of his movie’s balance sheet. Pepper was a disaster, an unmitigated morass of bad casting, inert performances, horrendous narrative spasms and an overall feeling of camp creepiness. The Bee Gees were bad, Frampton failed to impress, and even the professional member of the acting team – Donald Pleasance, Paul Nicholas, etc. – seemed subdued. Instead of capturing the magic of the Beatles, the movie buried their energy and invention in a fog of Muzik-lite adaptations and arcane artistic choices. A critical and commercial catastrophe, Sgt. Pepper sat as the industry’s delineated disaster du jour – that is, until Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate came along and stole its box office bomb thunder. And yet Stigwood was right in the end. The soundtrack album sold extremely well.
Better still, it looked like future filmmakers had finally gotten the point. Since Sgt. Pepper, no one has again tried to tie the Beatles to a big screen musical. In fact, until Michael Jackson bought the rights to the group’s publishing and started allowing certain songs to be used in advertising campaigns, the remaining members of the band have been very careful to control their use. Only recently, for 2001’s I Am Sam, did a significant amount of Fab Four material find its way into a film (and again, it was cover versions of famous songs). But this time, they were used sparingly, offered to help define Sean Penn’s mentally handicapped character.
Across the Universe, on the other hand, looks like someone trying to remake both Hair and Pepper with just a little of Oasis’ “All Around the World” thrown in for good measure. And for all we know, it could turn out to be a major motion picture triumph. Indications are, however, that trouble is looming on the hit parade horizon. A few months back, Revolution Pictures Executive Joe Roth (himself a quasi-filmmaker) took Taymor’s cut of the film, carved out nearly 40 minutes (it was originally running somewhere in the area of two hours plus), and showed his ‘version’ to test audiences – all without the director’s knowledge. Then we learn that the movie has been ‘done’ since 2005, and that Ms. Taymor herself has been tinkering with the editing for over a year. All claim it’s merely an issue of length, not legitimacy. Right.
We’ll have to wait until September before the final fate of Across the Universe can be determined. Maybe Taymor’s talent for the unusual has cracked the knotty nut that is utilizing the Fab Four’s music in movies. Perhaps the jarring effect of hearing seemingly tone-deaf performers bellowing out the band’s songs will be softened by some new narrative or performance perspective. Maybe everything will gel together – reality and fantasy, song and sentiment. The trailer tends to indicate otherwise, as does the track record for such a strategy. There’s a line in the title track that seems to suggest a possible outcome. “Nothing’s going to change my world”, the lyric boasts, and in the universe of the Beatles on the big screen, such a prediction is dour indeed.