Of Beatles and Men

Of Beatles and Men

Pretty much everybody loves The Beatles. Pretty much everybody loves a good film. Across the Universe, Julie Taymor’s 2007 romance drama combines the two beautifully in a 133 minute musical. The film, set in New York, Liverpool, and Vietnam in the 1960’s captures both the magic and mayhem of the youthful spirit of the time. Set on the backdrop of social upheaval, America and the world in the 60’s is given a spectacular treatment in Taymor’s film chock full of Beatles references and music.

The film is a six degrees of separation tale that begins with the story of a young British shipyard worker named Jude who jumps a ship to Princeton, New Jersey to find his estranged father, who is revealed to just be a janitor on campus. In his adventures in Princeton, he meets Max and his sister Lucy, who is waiting for her boyfriend Daniel to return home from the war in Vietnam. Jude hits it off immediately with the two and follow them to New York City. He soon becomes swept up in the world of art and social change of the young 60’s, meeting aspiring singer Sadie, a young girl named Prudence, and a Jimi Hendrix-esque musician named Jojo. Together, Jude and his friends navigate the war, their relationships with each other, and the world at large, all accompanied by a sick Beatles soundtrack.

One notable feature in this film is the presence of parallel storylines. Romantic plotlines, deaths, misery, and happiness play a large role in the establishment of the plot. The tragic deaths of Jojo’s brother and Lucy’s boyfriend Daniel are mesh together beautifully in the “Let it Be” sequence. “Strawberry Fields Forever” juxtaposes the passion of Sadie’s singing, Jude’s anger, and the intensity of Max’s experience in the Vietnam war. The “Hey Jude” sequence combines the sadness of two friends (Jude and Max) torn apart by consequences beyond their control. The director’s creative decision to cross cut such scenes creates a feeling of interconnectedness between the characters, linking together similar emotions and feelings to tie the seemingly disjointed elements of the plot together.

Storytelling elements aside, the biggest kudos I have to give to the film is to the editing and cinematography team. The seamless incorporation of digital SFX into the already quick cut and scored film further emphasize the emotion of each scene. Most notable in the film are the “Let it Be”, “Come Together”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” sequences. Exploring themes of death, the hustle bustle of metropolitan life, anger, and delusion, these sequences combine choreography, a variety of camera angles, and varying degrees of colour saturation. Needless to say, the film was extremely enticing and visually stimulating, having no shortage of bland or cumbersome shots.

However, there are a few things that do not sit well with me after viewing the film. First of all, I feel that the plot-line involving Jude and his father was very unnecessary, and was used more as an ex-machina of sorts to get Jude over to America. Jude’s father only appears one more time in the film as he bails Jude out of jail after being arrested for a riot shortly before Jude is deported back to England. The relationship between the two could have added just that extra oomph to plot depth depth.

Another criticism I have for the film is the lack of emphasis on the Civil Rights Movement. Although there was one scene in which Jojo’s brother is killed during a riot, and an MLK cameo on one of the TV screens, I feel that the theme could have been played up more and included the perspectives of African American struggle. The film’s characters are predominantly white, and do not accurately represent much of the demographic of New York in the 60’s. Considering the fact that the film was modelled off themes and lyrics in Beatles songs, it may have been difficult to incorporate these elements in the film, but the extra effort would have made the film a lot more profound.

A lot of the magic in the film lies in the fact that it is more so an extended music video than it is a movie musical. The songs do not feel like musicalized exposition (ie. Frozen) nor does the film feel like a stage play forced into motion picture (ie. Les Miserables).  Each song seamlessly ties into character development and theme, its themes reemphasized by graphics and music.

All elements aside, it’s the magic of The Beatles that ties everything together at the end. The Beatles have an entire visual and auditory aesthetic (the term has become an overused meme I know, but bear with me) and concept that still resonates within Western pop culture. The psychedelic, the socially conscious, and populist appeal of The Beatles as both a band in combination with the creative vision of Taymor herself pack a punch. The sad, the angry, the inspiring, and the whimsical so easily collide, all with a little help from our friends John, Paul, Ringo, and George.

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