Question: How much freight should a '60s musical icon have to carry? (Another question: How'd we get through that decade without using the word icon to refer to every pop star?) Forty years ago, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and a lot of other talented young folks, wrote and performed terrific songs that opened the minds of people my age, expanded the pop-music vocabulary and generally made listeners feel smarter, cooler, better. And now we have two ambitious movies Julie Taymor's Across the Universe and Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, both of which played this week at the Toronto Film Festival that are carpeted with the music of the Fab Four and the man from Hibbing, Minnesota.
Who's going to put down ten bucks to see skewed visions of what happened 40 years ago? What demographic could the movies appeal to? Not the adults who were young then: the '60s kids are in their 50s and 60s now, and the only members of their age group who still go to movies are critics, like me, who are paid to. Nor do the films have much appeal for today's young people. No one under 45 could even remember the '60s, let alone have lived meaningfully through those days. Kids are nostalgic for, like, Kurt Cobain, and the Adam Sandler years of Saturday Night Live. The last thing they'd want to see is a reprocessing of their parents' youth.
In the years just after World War II, Hollywood produced a slew of nostalgic movies using the sing-along music of 40 years before, because the songs summoned a more placid and innocent age. If contemporary filmmakers are digging up the songs of the '60s, maybe it's because they remind us of a bolder, more vibrant time than our own. Kids actually did stuff then. Those who didn't go to war protested it. (The existence of a military draft helped.) They rebelled against their parents' values, political views and choice of recreational drugs from martinis to marijuana. They marched for civil rights, vandalized their universities, exiled themselves to Canada. Unlike today's young people, they were idealistic, reckless, suicidal and interesting.
So maybe something is to be learned from movies about the '60s. But my guess is the classroom will be empty.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
I forget who said this a movie producer, I think, appearing on a making-of promo video but he characterized the quality of his film as "somewhere between Sergeant Pepper the album and Sergeant Pepper the movie."
That's a pretty big stretch, and it's the area that Across the Universe spans. In its plot and performances, the movie is ordinary at best; at times during the film, you'll be stranded in perplexity. But in the way it looks and sounds, it's a tonic to two senses. No surprise here, since Taymor has lavished her extravagant theatrical imagination on Broadway musicals (The Lion King), operas (The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera) and movies (a gory, oneiric Titus Shakespeare as a splatter film and the more pedestrian Frida). And the arranger-producers of the 33 songs include T Bone Burnett, who turned the old-timey country music of O Brother, Where Art Thou? into a platinum CD treasure.
Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the Brit TV comedy-writing duo who both turned 70 this year, the movie constructs six characters in search of the '60s Zeitgeist: the Liverpudlian Jude (Jim Sturgess), his American girlfriend Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), Lucy's rebellious brother Max (Joe Anderson), the Janis Joplin-like Sadie (Dana Fuchs), the Jimi Hendrix-ish JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy) and the Asian, vaguely Yokonian, finally lesbian Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They come together in New York City and manage to get involved in or affected by most of the decade's Big Movements: student unrest, race riots, Vietnam War resistance, political assassinations, the Black Panthers, bisexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs. Except for Laugh-In and the Mets' World Series victory oh, and Dylan it's pretty much all here.
What does the music of four English lads have to do with these very American eruptions? Nothing. They were back home, or in the studio, or off in India with the Maharishi. Pasting Beatles songs onto this storyline makes no more sense than scoring every Western set in the 1870s with the arias Verdi was composing at the time. At least the Cirque du Soleil's Las Vegas Beatles show, Love, was set in Liverpool and found recognizably English equivalents for Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby's cemetery. The NBC TV drama American Dreams, also set in the '60s, wove a greater range of period music through its characters' lives, as did American Graffiti and lots of other I-love-the-'60s jukebox movies.
Nor have the writers and Taymor injected much life into their characters. Jude loves Lucy, then gets jealous for spending too much time working in a radical students' group. Sadie, the lead singer in a band where JoJo plays guitar, gets steamed when he upstages her with a Hendrix riff. Prudence loves JoJo unrequitedly. Max is always in a snit. Often the characters aren't people at all so much as song cues ("Dear Prudence," "Hey Jude"). It's no wonder that Joe Roth, of the amusingly named Revolution Studios, got onto a tangle with Taymor by recutting the film. I don't know if the movie in theaters is his version, hers or a compromise. Whoever is responsible, the narrative is all dull bustle.
But even those resistant to or unmoved by the story can appreciate Taymor's settings of the songs, and the arrangements by T-Bone Burnett and other studio masters. The movie speeds up the 2/4 "I've Just Seen a Face" (for a zestful scene in a bowling alley) and slows down the ballad "If I Fell" (which Wood does very nicely), but the songs are flexible enough to still sound great. To invoke the Detroit riots, a black boy sings "Let It Be," which, upon his death, is taken up by a gospel choir at his funeral. When Max goes to the draft center, soldiers in masks dance around the inductees to "I Want You (She's So Heavy"). Who's so heavy? The Statue of Liberty, which the recruits hoist above them and carry off to Vietnam. The a cappella "Because" submerges the kids in a psychedelic pool and ends with Max surfacing under the shadow of a U.S. helicopter in Vietnam. "Strawberry Fields" is another mind-blaster, with some gorgeous kaleidoscopic effects in the mode of '60s master Pablo Ferro.