Monday, October 08, 2007

Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed, Misunderstanding All You See - My Response To Across The Universe

If you thought lightning struck Once, please read on because I believe it's struck again, and this time the charge has hit me full on.

Episode 339 of This American Life, Break Up, has a story from Starlee Kine called Dr. Phil (no, not that Dr. Phil - but you'll be surprised just who, I think). It's all about a painful break up she had with a boyfriend and it says so much that I would want to put in this piece that I'm just going to go ahead and explain what Starlee talks about and what it is she has to say and I'd also advise you to go listen to it, perhaps only to enjoy it, but also because it acts as a kind of back-up to what I'm writing here.

Starlee begins by explaining some details of her relationship with Anthony, which she describes as "hands-down the corniest relationship" she'd ever been in. They'd pass entire evenings "just complimenting each other, took hand-holding to new heights and listened to hours and hours of music, teenager style, playing one song after another while smiling a lot".

And then, they got into a Phil Collins phase. It started off ironically, but over time, as they listened to his music more and more, they became genuine fans. Here's Starlee on Against All Odds:

I liked how honest and sad it was. How could I just let you walk away, just let you leave without a trace? You're the only one who really knew me at all. I pictured Phil Collins at the piano writing it, the tears running down his face.

And then, on New Years Eve, Starlee and Anthony broke up.

I searched deep inside myself for the right words to say and out of my mouth popped this: How can you just let me walk away? I'm the only one who really knew you at all. And I meant it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that in that moment, nobody could have conveyed how I was feeling better than Phil Collins.

The rest of the story, about Starlee indulging in Phil Collins songs for a cathartic wallow in misery and self-pity before then deciding to write her own break up song is one of the finest chapters of This American Life and very probably my number one favourite. It ends triumphantly - truly triumphantly, I believe - and has some very funny twists and turns along the way. Please do listen to it.

And every second of the story celebrates the power of pop music, a particular power that is shared with nothing else.

How on Earth did Bryan Adams' Everything I Do last so long at the top of the pop charts? Partly because it's a one-size-fits-all sentiment. While it was on this record-breaking run, there were countless relationships, deep and shallow, doomed and lasting, all within the song's reach and in what appears to be a notable number of them it served real purpose: it reminded one or another lover of what they felt, or thought they felt, or wanted the other to feel; it said "I love you" and the lovers liked that because they were going through a phase with that phrase themselves; and it was a nice little reminder that, actually, between the break ups and the heartache and the bitterness, we very often manage to believe in love and what love can do. But, of course, Everything I Do is by no means special for doing this - the history of the hit parade is cut through with the story of love songs.

That's the background. Now onto the film.

The basic premise of Julie Taymor's Across the Universe is well known, but also frequently misunderstood, maligned and mocked. It's a musical, taking place in the 60s, and all of the songs were composed and originally performed by The Beatles. These songs are performed in the narrative by characters who take their names from Beatles songs too - there's Jude, Lucy, Maxwell, Sadie, JoJo and so on. And Jude takes more than his name from The Beatles. He's a little bit Lennon, a little bit McCartney, even a little bit Harrison - but sorry Ringo - I couldn't identify anything particularly Starkey about him. In fact, you might even recognise a little Stuart Sutcliffe when Jude cracks out the charcoal. What is important to note, however, is that this isn't actually our 1960s. In this universe, there are no Beatles, at least not such successful ones - a band seen in the Cavern Club in the opening minutes appear to be a somehow-stymied analogue that we never hear from again. Instead of Apple Corp., there's Strawberry Jamz, and their big act? Sadie, this alternative universe's Janis Joplin who has JoJo, the Bizarro Jimi Hendrix on guitar. The film's Alter-60s is constructed not from history, but from pop history, pop iconography, pop myth, pop music, pop riffs. It isn't too much of a stretch to say Across the Universe takes place inside pop.

As such, it's obvious why it would be absolutely missing the point to deride the central love story as cliched. It is fairly straightforward, however - which is not to say it's shallow. Jude comes from Liverpool to the US, meets Lucy, they eventually get together, seem to grow a little apart, Jude has to leave the country and... well, I'm going no further. But it spoils nothing to admit that the plot resolves itself with all of the direct emotional exclamation of a pop song.

Alongside the love story there are several other arcs cutting through, some of them rather political. The story traces a line from positivity and optimism about the Vietnam war through growing apathy towards the conflict, into activism and anti-war campaigning then into the degeneration even of these ideals. And, furthermore, this is in step with changes in the music as the Beatles developed from their earlier, supposedly less ambitious gems of pure pop perfection to the more complex, innovative and experimental later albums. Each of these chronologies is entwined together - suggesting, if nothing else, that the Beatles' music captures its precise moment in time perfectly.

This amazing structure would alone make me sit up and take notice, but it's just the frame. The mechanics at a micro level are far more impressive.

The film is not broken into boxed-off song-by-song set pieces - sometimes a song will span two or three scenes, there are even a couple of reprises of earlier numbers, and Helter Skelter and Across the Universe are closely meshed. The positioning of the songs, the choreography of the cast, of dancers, of the camera and the cutting is actually very, very elaborate stuff - so much so that Taymor managing to have her camera behave as it ideally would without the music interfering in matters while the music is, actually, doing just that shows a remarkably clear ability on her part to visualise sequences in conjunction with their musical accompaniment already in. This is something seldom seen in musicals, which tend to have a more theatrical structuring of the numbers revealed if you peel back the covers a little, and is more akin to a handful of the best and most ambitious music videos.

Lyrics may have been excised from a number of the songs (no mention in Revolution of the Beatles being hit up for donations, for example) but I didn't spot any additions - all of these words come direct from the original songs. The technique employed by Taymor and scriptwriters Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais isn't easy to perfect, but they've just about done it without fault. Not only is the overall shape of the film built about the progression from song to song, the storytelling within each song is built about the progression from line to line. It's just about the same trick pulled off so supremely by Betty Comden and Adolph Green for Singin' in the Rain, constructing their film around an existing catalogue of songs, but one with more rigid, tricky parameters to negotiate, and with much more success in maintaining relevance and resonance as any given song skips from lyric to lyric.

This is where a lot of the confusion begins, I believe, and the reason any number of critics have been dismayed with the film. They see the correlation between existing song and new, fictional scene to be too 'on the nose'. But it wouldn't work any other way.

Here's an example: the film begins with Jude on a beach, and he begins to sing Girl. The lyrics are absolutely the storytelling - he's wanting to tell us about this girl, and this is precisely how she makes him feel. What's happening with Jude, in some way, is what happened to Starlee Kine. Think of it like this: in Starlee's own personal Across the Universe, all of the songs would have been by Phil Collins and, as she said, nobody could convery how she would be feeling any better than him. The songs are called up to express precisely what the characters are feeling at the moment they are singing them.

Don't take that to mean the meanings are precisely what they would be if you were listening to the song in isolation. At the most basic level it's inescapable that we disconnect the songs from the narrative - I've Just Seen a Face, for example, is an even more widely appropriate song than the Bryan Adams mentioned above, but here, of course, it becomes very much about the fictional Jude and Lucy - which is just another way of saying, the fictional Jude and Lucy end up connected to a universal, poppy love song expression, that Jude and Lucy become a potent symbol of love themselves.

The assassination of Martin Luther King is portrayed just how it needed to be - as a news bulletin on a TV set, a bolt out of the blue into antennae across the world. It's a key part of the film, in the arc of characters, but also in a developing subtext about television as a window to the world. It's also important that King is mentioned because he is, as well as everything else, a piece of pop iconography from the times. That is not meant to in any way undermine or condescend him - quite the opposite in fact. "I have a dream" is a powerful statement, the beginning of a powerful speech, and it functions, if we're being honest, not unlike a powerful pop lyric. It hits - it hits hard - and it lingers in the memory, won't fade or go away. I think to separate the power of a clear ideal in a statement like that from a pop lyric is to underestimate the skill, honesty, intelligence and poetry of great pop lyricists.

There have been a few complaints about a couple of moments in the film in particular. I'd like to address them in turn.

In the Dear Prudence sequence, a character called Prudence has locked herself in the closet and other characters attempt to coax her out through singing the song. Now, this would be absurdly banal if we only had this surface level to interpret it on. The first complication is that Prudence isn't only literally in the closet; the second is that the room they are trying to get her to step out into takes on another meaning too, and in a very cinematic fashion as well.

During the Across the Universe number, Jude is on an underground train in New York. Just in time for the hare krishna chanting, he imagines himself and Lucy together, and they appear in a ghostly reflection, an apparition of a different, happier train car seen through the window. At this point, in that imaginary train car, some hare krishna devotees dance through, performing the chant. This sequence proves how intuitive it might be to put the cart before the horse when intellectualising this film. What's actually happening, of course, is that the music is being used as an expression of Jude's feelings, imagination, interior. When he conjures up the hare krishna in the imaginary train car, he's giving that part of the song a reason to exist to him. And that, of course, is how the whole film works.

Yes, in actuality, Clement, Le Frenais and Taymor have built their world around the songs, but in the film's universe, the songs come as an expression of the characters and situations. Challenging this is tantamount to slating fiction films for being constructed with any degree of precision or specificity in the first place.

The cast were recorded singing live on set wherever possible and they've done a great, great job. Jim Sturgess (who plays Jude) in particular and, while he's not getting enough attention yet, I think that will all change after his Oscar nomination next year (I don't think it will come for his brilliant turn here, but for his already-buzz-gathering showing in Wayne Kramer's Crossing Over which is likely to be far more critic friendly than Across the Universe has proven to be).

Technically, the film is a masterpiece too. Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography is awesome stuff, executed superbly in a wide variety of styles but with a rock solid consistency and Francoise Bonnot's editing is regularly frame-perfect and never intrusive. The production design and costumes are full of small details and subtle signifiers and are positively exploding with pop iconography, both real and remembered and in newly forged combinations. All of the craftsmanship on display is first rate, and arcs perfectly with those curves: the love story, the shifts in music, the journey through the decade.

Already Across the Universe has come and gone in the cinemas of Oxford, given only a single week to prove itself - which in financial terms, it most definitely did not. I'm sad that I didn't see it a couple more times in that window, and I promise you, as soon as I can get my hands on a DVD of this film, I will. It has already surpassed Vanilla Sky as my choice film about the potency, importance, resonance and relevance of pop culture.


Anonymous said...

Excellent! Well written and observed.

I have had opportunity to see the film three times. I'm sorry it was snatched away before you could.

Blame Sony for rushing it in and out of the U.K.
I apologize for their idiocy, but you understand the suits didn't get it. They told Taymor it wouldn't sell if she didn't cut all the "weird" and political "stuff". She refused, and now they have to prove themselves right by killing it. It is still only in 339 theatres across the entire United States!

Spidey said...

That was a very interesting breakdown into the mechanics of this film. You sold me, way more then the trailer and Taymor have so far. It doesn't reach here until the 12th, but until then I am definitely intrigued.

- spidey

Anonymous said...

I was with you right up until the "surpassed Vanilla Sky" line. Personally I find Vanilla Sky dull and pretentious so surpassing it wouldn't be too hard. Still, love The Beatles and their tunes so will definitely give this one a try.

Anonymous said...

Or, alternatively, the reason The Beatles, Apple etc aren't in the movie is that they couldn't get permission to use the original songs, and the rest of it is just a crimgeworthy attempt at hanging a film on a series of Beatles songs (because Joe Public is stupid, and is more likely to go and see a musical if they already know the songs), squeezing as many references into the script as possible and resulting in a truly noxious cinematic experience that might well be technically impressive, but is no more thrilling or involving than, say, We Will Rock You in the West End, you know, the one where the characters travel across the 'Seven Seas Of Rhye' so that they can shoehorn in another Queen song. In fact, it's the sort of project where you can almost see the mental cogs of the producer thinking "and if it's successful, we'll transfer it to a stage musical…". Horrible, horrible horrible. Clement and Le Frenais have been responsible for some sublime projects in their time. This isn't one of them.

Brendon said...

But Apple Corp. supported the film, so all of those comments about this being a cop-out plan B are, frankly, utterly misguided.

It is nothing - nothing - like We Will Rock You or the like.

Anonymous said...

Hate to disagree, Brendon, but even your own description of the way the story is told through the songs of the Beatles sounds exactly – exactly – like We Will Rock You and the like: "but in the film's universe, the songs come as an expression of the characters and situations" - yup, WWRY.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the comment that "they couldn't get permission to use the original songs"... to have a musical where the characters are listening to -- or lip-synching to -- Beatles' recordings would be silly. They did get permission to use the songs and the characters in the movie sang them, which was what made it so enjoyable.
Brendon, I like your observations, you noticed things I didn't, and I just saw it for the fourth time tonight! (Luckily for me, here in San Francisco, it's still at theaters, even though it opened weeks ago and I don't think it's making a huge amount of money.) I noticed, like you did, that almost every song takes you from one scene to the next, and I realized while watching it tonight that Taymor really did have to visualize scenes and what part of songs would be playing during those scenes to make it work. I also agree with you that the songs fit the story much better than, say, they did in Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (the film from the late 70s). I noticed that in "Universe", they've left lines out of some of the songs where those lines wouldn't have fit the storyline, where in "Sgt. Pepper's", they would use a song even if just the first verse or two fit what was going on, and the rest of the song wasn't supposed to matter, I guess. Taymor paid much more attention to making sure the songs fit what was happening, and even moved the story along.
As you probably can tell, I LOVED this movie.

Brendon said...

No, in We Will Rock You the songs are supposed to be believable expressions of the characters' emotions, in Across they Universe they ARE believable expressions of the characters' emotions.

And so many of the songs deal with such large, direct emotional subjects that fitting them into new contexts is very relevent to how the film sees and portrays popular music.

Mark said...

In the sticks, I didn't get the chance at all to see this movie, but I very much wanted to. Everything I've seen or heard about it suggested to me it had more in common with OUR FRIENDS IN THE NORTH than WE WILL ROCK YOU or its ilk.