Saturday, 9 May 2015

Lucy in the Mire, But Still With Diamonds

DVD Notes: “Across the Universe”


Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood indulge in an entirely sober make-out session

Along with the wave of new musical films that arrived with the new millennium after the genre had lain dormant for over a decade – Dancer in the Dark, Chicago, Dreamgirls, etc. – came the prominence of a subgenre, perhaps a companion to the new trends in pastiche and irony (of which Pulp Fiction was of course the greatest proponent): the jukebox musical. The jukebox musical is a musical which uses popular songs as its musical score, often with something in common, such as the original performing artist or recent billboard performance. The songs are strung together in a contrived context. Think Mamma Mia! and Moulin Rouge: shameless romance, character ludicrously breaking into song at the most awkward moments, a preposterous plot, often incoherent and wildly inconsistent in tone – and we can never get enough of it.

Across the Universe takes as its specific conceit the songbook of Lennon and McCarthy. Julie Taymor, who has never opted for convention and certainly never been happy treading familiar paths, has brought the full flourish of her theatrical phantasmagoria and surreal artificiality (she’s the director responsible for the Broadway production of The Lion King, including all the puppets and costumes) to the screen for a subject that truly warrants it. If a story built on the lyrics and melodies of Beatles songs doesn’t call out for the psychedelic brushstrokes of a personal and peculiar artist like Taymor, it’s not worth filming.

As is the problem with a number of modern musicals, particularly of this jukebox variety, Taymor’s plot lacks coherence and, frankly, much to care about. Some may also complain about inconsistencies in tone, but I think inconsistency is precisely what she’s aimed for. Nobody would rather watch a tonally consistent compilation of songs, arranged for one to lucidly run on into another, for two and a half hours than the frenziedly psychedelic variety on offer here. The film was reportedly taken from Taymor by a studio executive in the editing process, and I have no idea how much of what we see is her product and how much is a corporate rendering of her work. The first few scenes play quite straightforwardly, but after that, all we can really tell is that we can’t quite tell where we are or how much time has passed since we last wondered where we were. Characters move in and out of consciousness (ours and their own, thanks to narcotics), and no sense of progression is given in the events. Each scene merely follows on from the previous one, often with a hallucinogenic transition across a Beatles tune, and the plot, like an unappeasable paparazzo, thoughtlessly follows the action.

The action, for the most part, is not a construct of Taymor or any of the other writers’ imaginations. We’re taken through a kaleidoscope of 60s issues and events: the war in Vietnam, the rise to prominence of the Beatniks, student protests, bisexual experimentation, the riots in Detroit, radical and revolutionary counter-culture, and a wide-eyed fascination with and love for the new rock and roll plaguing western civilisation. What, might a more historically-conscious viewer ask, did the Beatles have to do with this American unrest? The answer is, Not much. They were in the news at the same time, and presumably most of the young people involved were listening to the Beatles, but the fab four themselves are not at all connected, and nor are their songs.

Still, in scratching our left-wing itches with Lennon-McCartney refrains and lively Liverpudlians in leather jackets, Across the Universe has just about its fair share of charm. We never buy that such a group of characters – they cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be called “people” – would meet and live together at such a time in New York City. Some are named just to be sung to and about with maximum convenience: Jude, Lucy, Prudence, etc. Some are contrived to resemble the public personas of a number of the musicians of the time: look out for Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and a vague Yoko. Nevertheless, we’re won over by their enthusiasm, not to mention good looks and capable singing voices. Not to mention (although I already have) the songs and Taymor’s transfixing staging of each of them.

The filmmakers had the good sense – maybe even the gall – to realise that these songs are strong enough to survive a lot of what might be inflicted on them. T-Bone Burnett arranged them for the film, and while some remain pretty much what the Beatles put down, some are wonderfully different. And Taymor lets loose her extravagant theatrical sensibilities on each of them. You might not think it at the beginning, with the actors singing and the camera photographing the songs just as they might be in any other film, but when we arrive in New York City, the musical sequences pick up special effects, dazzling choreography, colourful and kaleidoscopic backgrounds, enormous and strange puppets, elaborately weird makeup for the singers, and a riveting quality not often found among musical adaptations. The dull plot and lifeless characters are reasons not to be enthralled with the film. But there’s about an hour of supremely uncanny and deliriously enjoyable musical set pieces here, and these are more than reason enough to sit through it.

Directed by Julie Taymor; written by Dick Clement, Ian Le Frenais, and Julie Taymor; starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, T.V. Carpio, and Martin Luther McCoy; director of photography, Bruno Delbonnel; editor, Françoise Bonnot; music by Elliot Goldenthal.

Bono, in a scene that totally makes sense, singing a rock and roll classic

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