When I was in Austin a couple of weeks ago (you're sick of hearing about it, I know), I was present at a very late-night karaoke session (the bars in Austin all close at 2am, but the biggest Karaoke joint in town is open until 4am - strange, or what?) with Juan Antonio Bayona, director of THE ORPHANAGE (good, but overrated) and many others (Nacho Vigalondo had gone back by this point). Early on in the proceedings Bayona took the mic to warble his way through The Beatles' "Yesterday"; already fairly drunk off his ass (thanks to a very enthusiastic screening that night), he took the opportunity to take several pot-shots at Julie Taymor's ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, which had just opened and I'm guessing did not endear itself to him; among the replacement lyrics were "I hate ACROSS THE UNIVERSE/That fucking movie sucked/Don't see ACROSS THE UNIVERSE/Now I hate/Julie Taymor". Obviously not a fan.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is pretty much a love-it-or-hate-it movie and there's a lot of vocal parties on both sides of the issue. I would say that everyone loves The Beatles, but I actually know one or two folks who are not fans (like Scooter McCrae), but for the 99.99999% of intelligent society, The Beatles are a very precious and important thing and how those songs are represented are sometimes just as important to them as the songs themselves. YELLOW SUBMARINE = great, while SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND = bad, and ACROSS THE UNIVERSE seems to be falling somewhere in-between. I'm going to place my name into the "lovers" category for this film, as I'm in admiration of Taymor's approach, her style, the look, the casting, and the fidelity to the spirit of the music and times that the film represents. It doesn't necessarily add a new appreciation for the songs or allow you to see them in a whole new light, but it serves as an important reminder (and you definitely need to be reminded of this every now and again) of their wonderfulness.
One of the first things that I think needs to be said about ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is the unacknowledged debt it owes to Milos Forman's 1979 film version of HAIR, an excellent film in its own right. The plotlines are basically the same (simpleton comes to NYC in the late 60's and meets up with a group of hippies) and both films are not just odes to the music of the era, but the era itself and its spirit of freedom and rebellion. Though Forman's film is much more impassioned, Taymor obviously believes in her film's message and this accounts for a lot; a lesser, more contemporary director would use this opportunity to sell themselves and show off the latest digital tricks at their disposal. Taymor does this, too, but for her it's about bringing her ideas to life and creating an artistic whole and not about what kind of tricks she can pull. Her ambitions are genuine and sincere and that means something, especially when you're talking about these particular songs. And as for the songs themselves, they're used pretty well, I'd say; I was especially enamored in the early going by the use of "Hold Me Tight", since the early stuff never seems to get the respect the post-Rubber Soul songs do, and the only song I felt didn't quite mesh in with the plot was "With A Little Help From My Friends", but that was also from the opening reel, so it didn't hamper things too much. Outside of that, I felt most of them fit in just right and that there wasn't much that was missing from the mix (no moments of "They should have placed 'Think For Yourself' in here").
Credit Taymor, too, for her casting all around; every role seems just right and even the cameos (Bono, Eddie Izzard, Salma Hayek, and especially a brilliant Joe Cocker) add to the mix. Leads Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood are both appealing and sing very well, and I suppose I should mention the lovely Dana Fuchs as Sadie; I actually know Dana a little, as she is an old friend of my friend Jen Lui (a.k.a. Mrs. Outcast Cinema), and it's great to see her get such an excellent part that really showcases her talents as an actress and singer, so here's hoping that this leads to big things for her from here on out. Further kudos go to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and if I forgot anyone else, I'm damn sorry about it.
So, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is sputtering along out there, not getting as big a release as I think it deserves, but it seems to be getting by with a little help from some word of mouth (I saw it at a fairly full mid-afternoon matinee) and it would be nice to see it catch on. Stranger things have happened and especially considering all the behind-the-scenes crap this film has gone through, having it make some dough would be a happy ending for all concerned. Obviously, it's a must-see for Beatles fans, but film lovers owe it to themselves to see something unique out there (especially coming from a major studio), so if you see it and you like it, tell somebody.