It’s time to get out that eye patch, warm up some scurvy, and preen your shoulder parrot as pirates rule the roost this weekend. In preparation for what promises to be one of those ‘record breaking’ stints at the Cineplex come 25 May, Starz is offering the pay cable premiere of a certain House of Mouse franchise flick. It remains one of those flummoxing cinematic flukes – Disney destroys its legacy with an attraction-based Country Bears effort and an equally awful Haunted Mansion mess, but then takes a bunch of cutthroat scallywags and an actor unknown for his box office appeal and manages to create one of the biggest cinematic cash machines EVER. And with the final (?) installment just seven short days away, you’ll be up to your ears in buccaneers for the next several media cycles. So grab your bottle of rum and work on your ‘yo ho hos’ as SE&L sums up the choices the week of 19 May in one simple soundbite – ARRRRR!:
Premiere Pick Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
This is SE&L‘s selection for most unnecessarily maligned ‘good’ movie of 2006. Why the vast majority of writers constantly picked this film apart when it was actually an excellent throwback to the blockbusters of days gone by remains a mystery. Granted, anytime a stand-alone epic (The Matrix, Spider-Man) suddenly shifts into a multi-installment franchise, the narrative dynamic gets complicated and confused. But the amount of invention and visual innovation offered by director Gore Verbinski should be enough to overcome such plot point shimmying. And when you add in the still sensational performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, only the most cynical of self-stylized critics should complain. Now, just in time for the final film in the ‘trilogy’, Starz premieres this wonderfully engaging entertainment. Perhaps Public Enemy said it best when they warned “don’t believe the hype”. In this case, it’s a sentiment that applies equally to things labeled both bad and good. (19 May, Starz, 9PM EST)
Additional Choices V for Vendetta
Many predicted this pointed political commentary would fail to generate much motion picture interest, especially with Matrix makers The Wachowski Brothers behind the scenes. Surprisingly, it ended up being one of 2005’s best films. While the small screen may lessen some of the story’s sizeable impact, this visually arresting offering speaks volumes about our current social status – and the threats that lie both without, and within. (19 May, HBO, 8PM EST)
It’s hard to know what to make of this movie. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with a mindless action thriller where a helpless individual (in this case, an ex-con trying to go straight) gets caught up in a crime (a carjacking) that results in a personal score to settle (the kidnapping of his son). Still, many criticized this ‘gansta’ take on the subject, pointing out its farcical, fictional facets. (19 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)
Mission Impossible III
A certain couch jumping Scientologist took a lot of heat for this proposed blockbuster’s saggy performance at the box office. In reality, it was the franchise, not the famous face, that needed overhauling. Mission Impossible 1 & 2 were both overdone contrivances that substituted uber-complex narratives for suspense. Lost/Alias’ J.J. Abrams tried to inject new life into the series with a more straightforward approach. It almost worked. (19 May, ShowTOO, 7:55PM EST)
Indie Pick Marebito
Proving he is the master of Asian creepiness, Ju-On creator Takashi Shimizu took the eight day break he earned before helming the American remake The Grudge to shoot this sly, suspenseful story about a fear obsessed free lance photographer and an unsettling urban legend about a demonic presence in the Tokyo subway system. Avoiding his usual ‘silence is scarier’ mandate, Shimizu has his lead narrate every aspect of the adventure, and there are moments of disturbing gore, another element usually missing in the J-Horror paradigm. In fact, it’s a shame how this filmmaker has been marginalized ever since he helped create the Far East horror fad. Efforts like this and the recent Reincarnation prove that there is more to Shimizu than stringy haired spooks doing the spider crawl down a set of stairs. Don’t be surprised when he ends up a formidable movie macabre force OUTSIDE of the foreign film category. (20 May, Sundance, 12AM EST)
Additional Choices Lost Highway
David Lynch’s disjointed masterpiece remains as stunningly convoluted as ever - never mind the myriad of words written about its supposed meaning. Like a fever dream folded onto itself and then buried in battery acid, this bifurcated tale of a man charged with murder and his sudden “shift” into a mechanic making time with a mob moll is so outrageous it defies defense – that is, until you realized how mesmerized you are by what’s happening onscreen. (20 May, IFC, 9PM EST)
When We Were Kings
He remains one of sports’ most powerful symbols, and this staggering documentary about his heavyweight fight against George Forman in Zaire, Africa proves that point with crystal clarity. Mohammed Ali’s arrival for the “Rumble in the Jungle” was just the beginning of a whirlwind expression of hype, hero worship, and hope, culminating in the entire nation rallying around the champ. It set up a perfect pugilist backstory, making the bout itself that much more important. (21 May, Sundance, 10:30PM EST)
The Station Agent
The remarkable Peter Dinklage is a little person who takes the loss of his business partner quite badly. Moving into the abandoned train station he inherited from his friend, he longs to live an isolated, hermetical existence. Unfortunately, he runs into a confused couple who have their own issues to deal with. The result is one of 2003’s most genuinely affecting films. (23 May, IFC, 5:15PM EST)
Outsider Option Duel
He was young, cocky, and out to prove himself. Luckily, the suits over at Universal were more than willing to give the young directorial novice a shot. After all, he had done some great work in their episodic series, so why not let him helm a standard suspense TV movie. Little did they know that they were about to launch the career of one of Hollywood’s true legendary commercial filmmakers. Steven Spielberg’s taut little thriller remains an amazing accomplishment when you consider his age (he was 25 at the time) and his experience. Still, many swear that the techniques he developed here are easily identifiable in his later, more mainstream triumphs. With a great performance by Dennis Weaver and lots of nail-biting road rages, this is one fun first film. (24 May, Retroplex, 11:40PM EST)
Additional Choices Electra Glide in Blue
After showing up on Canada’s Drive-In Classics channel, its now time for this amazing Robert Blake vehicle from 1973 to get a Rob Zombie-less airing. Playing a motorcycle cop whose desperate to make the Homicide division, we wind up with a taut thriller couched in the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ conceit. Though many know him today as an accused killer, Blake was an amazing actor, and this able actioner more than proves it. (18 May, Turner Classic Movies, 2AM EST)
Tom and Viv
Willem Dafoe is Tom Elliot. Miranda Richardson is his wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood. He ends up becoming prized poet TS Elliot. She slowly devolves into madness and delusion. Chronicling the couple’s life together, this intriguing 1994 film avoided a great many of the period piece pitfalls inherent in such a story. The Oscar nominated performances helped as well. (22 May, Indieplex, 7PM EST)
The serial killer film has been floundering of late. Perhaps filmmakers could take away a few lessons from this satisfying Korean horror saga. Directed by Sang-Gon Yoo and focusing on a maniac who murders his victims and burns off their faces with acid, some find the CSI material more intriguing than the supernatural elements. But most agree that, in a genre were the redundant and the dull have ruled the day, this is a novel, noble attempt at something different. (22 May, Starz 5 Cinema, 1:15PM EST)
Before the days of DVD, when commentaries and behind the scenes featurettes were restricted to the occasional Criterion laserdisc, the only way to get the making-of scoop on your favorite troubled production or flamboyant film personality was to actually pick up a book and read. Indeed, this sort of non-fiction reportage had the specific goal to lifting the lid on major motion pictures (especially highly publicized fiascos and flops) and the people who made them, providing the insider information that studio publicity people fought so stridently to restrict. Even today, in the tell-all tabloid nature of the media, there are many untold stories, onset situations and backstage dramas that never get divulged. So it’s up to the willing journalist to smoke out the scandal and discover the real reasons why a tripwire talent implodes, or a promising production ends up causing chaos – both critically and commercially.
However, the low down dirt is not always found in a detail-oriented dissertation or an interview-laden overview. Instead, several famous faces have decided to expose themselves, giving incredible insight into the mechanics of moviemaking – the dizzying highs and the Hellish lows. Even the standard biography, crafted by someone on the outside looking in, can offer a wealth of worthwhile context. It’s just a matter of picking through the glorified love letters and pasted together products to find something that supplies both substance and spice. While the following list is far from all inclusive, it does represent the kind of benchmark these books should strive for. Indeed, after paging through any or all of these varied volumes, you’ll be a much more qualified film fanatic. Without them, you’re just a sham cinephile. Let’s begin with:
Shock Value by John Waters (1981)
The man responsible for the bad taste triumphs Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble has actually led a life as interesting – or in some cases, more so – than his famously campy trash classics. From a childhood fascination with car accidents to an ongoing obsession with crime, this collection of clever essays touches on all aspects of his career, including in-depth descriptions of his various low budget epics.
Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven’s Gate by Steven Bach (1986)
After taking home Oscar gold for his grossly overrated The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino had his heart set of making a post-modern Western revolving around a mythic range war between cattlemen and immigrant farmers. Unfortunately, his attention to obsessive detail bankrupted the production and destroyed a studio. One of the most notorious cases in all of cinema, Steven Bach’s brilliant breakdown stands as an amazing must-read.
The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco by Julie Salamon (1991)
If you want a blueprint for how a high concept adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel can go horribly, horribly wrong, look no further than this intriguing take on the Brian DePalma disaster known as Bonfire of the Vanities. Salamon doesn’t hold back, offering scathing criticism of everyone involved, saving special ire for the idiots who took Thomas Wolfe’s tome and robbed it of all its social satire.
Step Right Up!: I’m Gonna Scare the Pants off America by William Castle (1992)
As the king of hucksters, the bad boy of ballyhoo, William Castle turned borderline b-movie garbage into sensational cinematic schlock thanks to his various inventive promotional gimmicks. Here, in his own words, he explains his profession both behind and in support of the camera, and argues that all movies would benefit from his concrete carnival barker approach. In retrospect, he couldn’t have been more right.
Killer Instinct by Jane Hamsher (1998)
Long before the controversial film hit theaters, Natural Born Killers had a simmering scandal going on behind the scenes. Screenwriter Quentin Tarantino was livid at how director Oliver Stone had eviscerated his original vision, and he was taking it out on producers Don Murphy and Hamsher. In this wonderfully vitriolic bit of backwards glancing, we learn that Hollywood is actually ruled by two things – money, and unchecked hubris.
A Youth in Babylon by David F. Friedman (1998)
He is known as the Mighty Monarch of the Exploitation Game, and after reading this amazing autobiography, it’s not hard to see why. A confirmed carny at heart, Friedman helped form the 40 Thieves, a band of producers who prowled the unheralded underbelly of the taboo-busting genre, and created the grindhouse ideal that’s recently become a cultural lynchpin. A great man, and an even better storyteller.
The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut by Jack Matthews (2000)
Terry Gilliam’s career has been a contentious and continuous war between artistic merits and artificial mandates – none more notorious than his confrontation with Universal head Sid Sheinberg over the director’s brilliant dsytopic fantasy. From the role played by the LA film critics to the full page ad antagonism used by Gilliam to embarrass the corporate head, this is as perplexingly personal as the film business gets.
Losing the Light: Terry Gilliam and the Munchausen Saga by Andrew Yule (2000)
After his less than happy experience with his previous spectacle, Terry Gilliam was hoping that this adventure romp centering on the famed Germanic fairytale legend would be smooth sailing. Instead, it turned into one of the more infamous production nightmares in moviemaking history. Everything that could go wrong did, from unseasonable weather to financing in freefall. Unlike Brazil, however, the battle was all on set.
The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan by Jimmy McDonough (2001)
He’s one of exploitation’s unsung heroes, a director who lived the psychosexual potboilers he wrote and directed. In fact, had he not been aiming at the needs of the metropolitan raincoat crowd, Milligan may be viewed today in a similar light as Kenneth Anger or The Kuchar Brothers. Instead, he is continually categorized by his association with softcore cinema. Thanks to his amazing bio, his reputation can finally be rebuilt.
If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B-Movie Actor by Bruce Campbell (2002)
Somewhere, in one of the special circles of Hell, there is a place for every studio executive or foolish filmmaker who ever denied the vainglorious appeal of our man Ash. Campbell’s amusing memoirs are so self-deprecating that you wonder if he’s ever really serious. Then you read between the lines and see a savvy performer who’s more than content to pave his own way through the Tinsel Town jungle.
If there is such a thing as a successful piecemeal horror film, 28 Weeks Later is it. A sequel in source only to the wildly inventive 2002 Danny Boyle classic, this latest twist on the zombie genre (Okay! Okay! Let’s just call them ‘murderous maniacs’ and be done with it, all right?) suffers from a great many missteps. It gives us protagonists we really don’t care about, follows a very uncomfortable extreme vs. ennui narrative structure, and substitutes gallons of grue for ideas and innovation. And then there are the problems it could not have anticipated. Thanks to last year’s stunning Children of Men, the notion of a devastated UK as a symbol for social decline and war torn terrorism has already been purchased and spent. This makes any attempt at commentary by new director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo feel like a parable without a point.
We get off to a good start, however. It’s been several months since the outbreak of the Rage Virus in Great Britain and the US military has stepped in to start cleaning up the country. London itself is basically quartered off into two main areas – the danger free “Green Zone” (oh, how Iraq War) and everything else. Outside the boundaries of the tough talking, foul mouthed yanks, the countryside is crawling with the infected…as well as a few survivors. Don and Alice are two of the barricaded refugees, eking out a meager life inside a squalid yet secure cottage. They are joined by the home’s original owners, an elderly couple, as well as a pair of unidentified men. There is also a young woman whose boyfriend has gone out looking for help. Conversation naturally turns to this act of desperation, and after much hopeless banter, a knock at the door brings the group the latest in a seemingly neverending list of ‘do or die’ quandaries.
At this point, 28 Weeks Later makes its first minor fumble. The argument over who to let behind the intricate set of locks and barricades itself leads to a massive slaughter spree, and while the terror element is fantastic, the logical aspect is daft. One of the key flaws in this film is the idea that youth trumps everything. It is the reason Don and Alice end up staring into the face of horror yet again, and it will also become the catalyst for the film’s far more devastating plot decision. As stated before, the US military is envisioned as a sex obsessed, by the book battalion of bumblers who are supposed to guarantee the Green Zone’s security. Yet they can’t seem to stop a pair of pretentious kids from crossing over into danger. Backtracking for a moment, these juvenile lawbreakers are Don’s kids, released from a refugee camp in Spain and part of the lucky 15,000 individuals allowed back into London. So naturally, the first thing they want to do upon entering the country is sneak off to their old abode to snag some mementos.
It’s a jarring, unimaginable narrative fumble, the kind of logistical left turn that literally derails the film. In fact, it is so outrageously bad that Fresnadillo must spend the entire rest of the movie making up for it. And just as he almost succeeds, a second sloppy situation stuns the story. At that point, 28 Weeks Later is beyond saving. This is not to suggest what we have here is a horrendous flop. On the contrary, the visual elements employed and the generous amounts of inventive gore do a splendid job of supplementing our incredibly weak internal rationales. Even as more baffling incongruous coincidences occur (the kids found more than just keepsakes during their journey), leading to perhaps the most ludicrous re-infestation ever conceived for a fright film, the way Fresnadillo handles the artistic aspects is absolutely fascinating.
Still, there is a lot of ludicrousness to pardon here. Again, the Americans are looked upon as clueless, reduced to basically two surprisingly simple strategies – preserve order, or nuke everybody. When called to respond to the new epidemic, their carefully plotted out plan is basically this – unload your entire magazine into any crowd you see. Similarly, the lack of crystal clear characterization makes everyone’s motives seem suspect. Take the troublesome adolescent twosome. First they seem happy to be in England. Then they miss their ‘mum’. Then they act like spoiled little brats when they wind up in quarantine, and before long, their whimpering like whelps to be saved and protected. Similarly, our GI Joe hero shifts wildly from cocky to caring, arrogant to altruistic without a clear reason for the massive mood swings. The rest of the cast comes from the one note school of genre performance. They just keep hitting that single stance over and over again until we finally give up and concede the personality point.
There are reasons, however, to really like this scattershot effort. As stated before, Fresnadillo really wants to be a movie macabre innovator. He’s desperate to diffuse the typical dread dynamic by employing filming techniques that draw the audience right into the action. By mixing quick cutting, jagged handheld camerawork, mangled mise-en-scene and any other untested trick he can come up with, he allows us to experience both the fear and the frantic pace of a siege situation. Similarly, he uses this inventive approach to keep as much of the brutality intact as possible. There are sequences of violence in 28 Weeks Later that rival their literal zombie brethren in nastiness and effectiveness. Again, Fresnadillo must be livid that Grindhouse hit theaters first. His clever helicopter gag is actually better than Robert Rodriguez’s splatter session.
In addition, Fresnadillo is not afraid of flaunting convention. There are several moments in this movie where a firm foundation in standard Tinsel Town tendencies are tossed out the window in favor of shocking, sometimes sickening realities. No one is safe, anyone can die at any time, and the typical caveats against killing children, the innocent and the infirmed are almost wholly abandoned. Of course, for every shocking stance like this, we must suffer through a series of unbridled happenstances that are supposed to have some manner of emotional resonance. Instead, we as the audience become keenly aware that somewhere, in a studio bungalow, a group of screenwriters (four are credited here) actually concocted this forced accidental tripe. With an ending that’s uninvolving and kind of flat (never mind the direct rip off of Stephen King’s tunnel sequence from The Stand), and the purposeful placement of facets to form 28 MONTHS Later, what should have been a knock out can barely manage a decision on technical merits.
And yet there is something about 28 Weeks Later that definitely gets under your skin. Perhaps it’s the last remnants of Boyle’s initial inventive conceit. Maybe us horror fans are so sick of lackluster living dead movies that we will accept anything remotely resembling the genre just because it manages to be competently made and expertly manipulated. It could be the amount of bloodshed strewn across the screen, or the expressionistic way the violence is tempered (can’t wait for the UNRATED DVD edition). Whatever the case, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo is definitely a filmmaker worth following. His future is very bright indeed. After this unexceptional sequel however, few will be anticipating another return to this fractured franchise.
Saddle up shoppers – this is going to be one confusing (and cash draining) DVD roundup. On top of the titles chosen by SE&L as representing the releases to look out for, there are dozens of previously available offerings (Goodfellas, Natural Born Killers, The Omega Man) making a reappearance on the medium for absolutely no good reason. In fact, we can’t tell if these are merely re-priced reprints looking for a little budget buying power, or barebones versions of still available special editions. Whatever the case, make sure you’re paying attention as you pick through the digital doggies waiting to be corralled. Indeed, you might wind up with a busted bronco instead of a magnificent mustang. Of course, you can avoid all the confusion and simply stick with this week’s prize pony, an overlooked masterwork that deserves to be the premium pick of 15 May:
Darren Aronofsky deserves SO much better. When he first pitched this time travel love story five years ago, he had Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, and a $70 million budget ready to realize his dream. Come 2006, he had to settle for a magnificent Hugh Jackman, an equally radiant Rachel Weisz, and a clear critical and commercial conundrum. More or less dismissed during its theatrical release, what most audience members saw as self-indulgent and confusing was actually the makings of a post-modern masterpiece. There have been lots of cinematic stories about death and the loss of a loved one, but nothing has done a better job of tapping into the internal struggle over the acceptance of same than this fascinating film. Aronosfky’s decision to go as lo-tech as possible with his F/X gives the entire production an earthy, natural glow, and the passion between his characters is palpable. Ignore it if you must, but decades from now it will be listed among the medium’s greats. Guaranteed.
Other Titles of Interest
It contains a cast of British acting heavyweights – Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Sir John Gielgud – and a story of substantive historical significance. But when it came time for the 1965 Academy to divvy up trophies, its 12 nominations could only manage a single screenplay win. So what beat this otherwise exceptional period drama – why, the lightweight musical mediocrity known as My Fair Lady.
Okay, this was a TV movie, so we’re sort of violating our own ‘theatrical only’ rules. But Mickey Rooney was just so good as a mentally handicapped man finally escaping his life under institutional control. With a VERY young Dennis Quaid as the documentary filmmaker that helps Bill out, it remains a weeper that definitely earns its emotions. The sequel was equally satisfying.
The Dead Girl
A lot has been written about this under the radar indie drama – and almost all of it has been better than good. Using the identity of the title entity as a means of tying many divergent characters and storylines together, actress Karen Moncrieff’s second full length feature crackles with a complexity and collection of perfect performances that few Hollywood efforts just can’t achieve. div>
The left over Oscar argument from 2007 will always be whether Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others deserved to win the award for Best Foreign Film over this clear fan favorite. After revisiting it recently on home video, it is obvious that Guillermo Del Toro’s adult fairytale about war and sacrifice is a stellar motion picture. In fact, its timeless nature will keep it considered long after Lives is forgotten.
Stomp the Yard
The black college tradition of stepping definitely deserves more than this hackneyed formula film, especially given director Sylvain White’s remarkable way with a camera. He brings an energy and a vitality to the ‘dance’ sequences, experimenting with shot selection and post-production optics to tweak convention. Too bad the rest of the movie is so routine.
And Now for Something Completely Different Tex Avery’s Droopy: The Complete Theatrical Collection
Finally! Every other half-baked animated creature seems to be getting a major DVD release these days, and yet Tex Avery’s dour hound dog always gets left behind. It’s hard to describe what makes Droopy so incredible – his hurdy gurdy nerdy voice, the intensely violent physical comedy that forms his humor, or the hyper-stylized way Avery and his crew realized his pen and ink personality. Whatever the reasons, this two disc set – offering 24 theatrical shorts and a bevy of added content – promises to make fans of the zany animator and his prized pooch happy indeed. We here at SE&L are smiling all the way to the brick and mortar. Now, if they could only find a way to bring the complete Screwy Squirrel to the digital medium.
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.