Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Belated Movie Review: Across The Universe

A while back, I finally got around to seeing the movie Across the Universe. It took me a while because a week after its release, it was pulled from the theaters, seemingly in favor of replaying one of the most vile abominations to ever hit the big screen, Michael Bay's Transformers, which was being released on DVD that week, so naturally it had to be reshown in the major theaters. As if all summer wasn't enough, right? Anyway, after the late October horror movies were picked through, we finally got around to seeing Across the Universe, but then I got sidetracked writing about other things for a few weeks, so here we are with a movie review almost two months too late.

Before I start this review, I should let you know that there are two things I really do not care for. One is musicals, and another is the Beatles. In case there's still one or two people who haven't seen it yet, I'll spoil it for you: Across the Universe is a musical strung together with Beatles songs. There's no logical reason for me to enjoy this movie, but I didn't realize it was an endless stream of Beatles songs when I went in to seeing it, you know, not keeping up on things like movie plots or theatrical previews and such.

Most people adore the Beatles. I just don't see it. Yeah, they were groundbreaking in the way they approached writing and recording their music, but there have been a lot of bands who have come after them who did what they did better. Just because they were the originators, doesn't necessarily mean they were good at it. A good number of their songs were sloppy and lazily put together, rushed, and raw. I'm more a fan of completed and at least slightly polished music. I don't mean that I like the overproduced Justin Timberlake polished turds, but I do like a full, lush sound. Many of the Beatles songs lack this. You can hear background noises and talking in the studios, and many of their songs contain false starts and outtakes that would normally be edited out of a finished product. For every good song "The White Album" has, it contains at least two more that are half-hearted efforts at best.

Don't even get me started on musicals. Musicals are embarrassingly ridiculous in their pomposity. Whenever someone mentions a musical, I relive my first horror experience with musicals, which was watching street gangs in tights do pirouettes in West Side Story. No street gang is ever going to a) be caught dead in tights, even if someone killed them and dressed the body in them after the fact, b) do pirouettes in public, and c) sing about how wonderful gang life is while dancing in finely choreographed unison down the street. If a street gang were to do that, though, it would be about the funniest thing I've ever seen, but they'd get a cap in their ass pretty damn quickly.

Musicals are just not realistic. People don't break into song and dance routines on a regular basis that incorporate the entire town. Teenager feeling angsty after the breakup with her boyfriend? Let's get the whole neighborhood to sing and dance with her, after which point, she can go back to crying after her boisterous song. About to enter a creepy forest? The best thing to do is sing about how frightened you are and have a group of trees join in the harmony. Between the cheesiness of the songs and the campiness of the dance routines, I avoid musicals like I avoid the plague. Although, I will admit that I have a soft spot for Savatage, who have been doing audio musicals since 1991, but maybe it's a bit different because I don't have to watch them. If, however, they made a full production out of, say, Poets and Madmen that contained starving aborigine tribes in Africa mirthfully singing and dancing, I'd have a whole separate article bitching about how horrible that is.

All that being said, I still liked Across the Universe. Although it did cross the line into campy unbelievability now and again, it was a lot easier to grasp the symbolic allusion than in many other musicals. Maybe it's the fact that the allusion was very intentionally symbolic and fueled with Beatles-induced Sixties psychedelia that made it easier to grasp. It was very easy to differentiate what was intended to be realistic actions of the characters, what was symbolic, and what was pure fantasy. It contained a comprehensive and diverse mix of Beatles hits, and reworked many of them into more finalized versions free of the production errors that marred the originals.

It also gave me a newfound appreciation for the music after seeing many of the songs put into context of what was going on in the world at the time they were written. It was easy to understand why their music meant so much to so many people of that generation. I've heard some criticism of the movie that it is nothing more than a simple story contrived and forced to fit within the context of the Beatles' songs. I disagree. I found it to be a slightly profound and quite multi-faceted story as told through the Beatles' songs. There is a lot of socio-political turmoil going on throughout the movie, and it shows us the impact of all of the social and political problems of that generation on the lives of the ordinary citizens growing up during that time. Yes, there is a star-crossed love story that gets almost cheesy at times, but it's not presented in any way that is unbelievable.

Having it all tied together through Beatles songs really opened my eyes to how important their songs were to the time period. They told stories, both up front and through metaphor, of the bullshit culture the world was going through, and most importantly, the affects it had on ordinary people's lives. So I guess I can't say that the Beatles were overrated anymore, even if I'm still not a big fan of their entire catalog. That's slightly irritating.

Seeing this film made me wonder what other bands' catalogs we could be making movies out of. Could you imagine the movie based on Led Zeppelin songs? It would be, like, four hours long. "First we're Vikings, then we're Fifteenth Century English warriors, and now we're traipsing through Egypt! What the fuck!" What about the Black Sabbath musical? How fucked up would that be? "Satan's coming for us and he's offering us shitloads of LSD! The rest of the movie is nothing but acid trips!" Really, I think a good sequel to Across the Universe would be a movie based on U2 songs. Just as there was a story of the Sixties that could only be told through Beatles songs, what better band would there be to encapsulate the Eighties and Nineties than U2, with their painfully yearning soul-searching messages in the time of excess? It's just a thought anyway, considering how closely related the music and careers of the Beatles and U2 are.

Anyway, Across the Universe, if you haven't seen it yet, you should do so. It's a fun romp that will visually entertain you from beginning to end, and you won't even mind the more absurd moments of musical pomposity. There are vividly artistic scenes in the movie, including an acid trip sequence that looks like a live-action version of the Yellow Submarine cartoon itself, but for the most part, the singing is handled well and realistically so you can tell when it's something happening in someone's mind, when it's background music, and when it's actually happening within the film itself. For a musical, I was rather impressed, and I want to see more musicals based on classic rock songs, dammit!


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