Age of Aquarius
Julie Taymor's Across the Universe (2007) might be the bastard result if you crossed Milos Forman's Hair (1979) with Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) and allowed Ken Russell to direct. The film is basically a series of Beatles songs strung together with a very loose plotline assembled from most of the main events of the late '60s, and a rather lame love story thrown in.
I mention Russell, but Taymor's opening image owes little to the legendary British filmmaker: a desolate beach; a camera that moves in close on a man sitting on that beach, looking over his shoulders, singing a quietly intense rendition of "Girl." The mix is so odd it might have you giggling, but it's also at the same time ominous, melancholic, and (if you allow it to be) powerful.
The same can't quite be said of the script, a surprisingly trite affair considering it was done by veteran British TV writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (they've worked with both Lenny Henry and Tracy Ullman, among others): boy named Jude (Jim Sturgess) meets girl named Lucy (Evan Rachel Ward); Lucy insists on treating the world seriously and engaging it in loud political dialogue while Jude insists on staying a step removed from the swirl of life and celebrating his love for Lucy; Lucy's brother Max (Joe Anderson) is drafted, and gives us a grunt's eye view of the war; Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy) are constantly falling in and out of love; and Prudence (pretty Filipina actress T.V. Carpio) wanders in and out of kitchen windows, looking for something to do, someone to care for.
If what I've written seems rather vague and uninteresting, that's probably because it is. The filmmakers have taken their cue from yet another source: Dennis Potter, who laced his dramas with '30s pop songs, lip-synched by the actors. Potter was working with--to my mind, anyway--inferior material, tinny tunes from pre-war radios, not as substantial or subtle or complex as the best of the Beatles (you're free to agree or disagree, and I just might sit down and join you), yet his scripts were brilliantly written, with complex, unhappy protagonists delivering memorable hyperconscious dialogue (sometimes even memorable monologues, as with Michael Gambon's bedside rant in Potter's 1986 masterpiece, The Singing Detective) that flitted effortlessly between fantasy, memory, and reality. The songs in Potter's case served to intensify the moment, give it an unearthly power (asked about his use of pop songs and why they're so effective, Potter said that's because he never confused the emotions of a pop song with the emotions felt by the people listening to that song); in this picture the songs are the moment, and when the song ends, the movie usually grinds to a halt till the next musical number rolls along.
That may be because when the dialogue ends, Taymor's talent takes over. It's not a very consistent talent; parts of Taymor's 1999 Titus are grotesque poetry (a girl with tree limbs for hands, standing on a pedestal), parts simply grotesque (Titus in a parody of Silence of the Lambs and Sweeney Todd serves the empress Tamora a meat pie made from human flesh). In this film some of the very best scenes make use of Taymor's flair for strong imagery (that opening number), lighting, and surrealism (the pinned strawberries--bleeding bright red juice like freshly torn hearts--that open "Strawberry Fields Forever"). She'll often transform setting and staging, transforming the meaning in the process (hundreds of recruits in a vast room being given a physical by hundreds of recruiters; descending walls turn the room into a warren of little offices ("I Want You (She's So Heavy)"); hospital beds lift up to reveal Vietnam vets strapped tight as if involved in some hideous medical experiment, suddenly given relief in the form of Selma Hayek (all five of her) administering a blue drug in an enormous syringe ("Happiness is a Warm Gun")). By way of comparison to other modern musicals, Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge (2001) was shot and edited music-video style and at a pace guaranteed to make your teeth grind, and Alan Parker's The Wall (1982) confined itself to the darker registers of human emotion (despair, depression, druggy denial). On those admittedly not very demanding terms, Taymor's film is some kind of masterpiece.
The excess can be problematical: for the LSD drug trips Taymor resorts to clichés like "negative" film print and psychedelic colors (Taymor should have perhaps studied Richard Rush's 1968 Psych-Out which gets the ambience of a drug trip right with the minimum use of process or digital effects). "Strawberry Fields Forever" in particular is so very close to being a great number--the idea of relating Jude's passion for Lucy to America's passion for war using strawberries is brilliant, but a clearer graphic design linking the two (less digital superimposition, more editing and camerawork) might have helped immeasurably.
It might also have helped if the actors actually had any characters to play; as is, Jude, Lucy, Jojo, Prudence are little more than names lifted from Beatle songs, their problems more diagrammed than dramatized. When they start singing, though, they're mannequins brought to temporary life; Taymor arranges and poses and lights them in such a way that they're part of the landscape she's creating, and that landscape throbs with a vitality the actors don't have, otherwise.
It's maddening, frustrating, yet at the same time strangely exhilarating. Taymor's shown that she can take the greatest of dramatists and bring him (not The Bard's best work, but Titus Andronicus is itself a fascinating choice--the most beautiful bonsai, it must be remembered, are not picked from the healthiest plants) to roaring if incoherent life; she's shown she can take one of the finest of popular bands and brilliantly visualize some if not all of their songs; what might you think she is capable of, working with the script of a great dramatist who incorporates fine songs into his script? If only Dennis Potter were still alive, or if Taymor would agree to do one of his unproduced scripts, or maybe adopt one of his television mini-series to the big screen (another Singing Detective, perhaps?), maybe we'll have something.
(First published in Businessworld, 3/7/08)