Monday, 20 October 2008

Across the Universe

Lowdown: Butchering Beatles songs.
From time to time one stumbles upon a film that raises the question within one’s inner self, “what were they thinking”? Luckily for me, I get to ask this question relatively infrequently, at least with regards to films. Across the Universe, though, has made me ask the question very repeatedly throughout the two nights over which we sat to watch it.
The premises behind Across the Universe are simple: Build a film out of Beatles songs. The idea has been tried before through incorporating Beatles songs or covers in the soundtrack. Across the Universe is different: Instead of settling with background soundtrack activities, it is the actors themselves who burst into song. And they do it for the vast majority of the film’s duration.
Before continuing to explain why saying I didn’t like Across the Universe is an understatement, I think it is important for me to establish my relationship with The Beatles in general. Well, for most of my life I wasn’t a fan; I thought their songs are too simplistic for sophisticated me. Eventually, and out of boredom with my own CD collection, I borrowed a certain Sgt Pepper CD from my sister’s collection. With time I noticed that I kept a firm grip on the CD and started buying my own Beatles CD collection. By early 21st century I have realized that The Beatles are probably my favorite band (“probably” because I don’t believe in ranking highly subjective preferences which are very whimsical and volatile to begin with, especially when they don’t contribute to much). I do have to add a disclaimer: Everything before Revolver is okay but often mediocre; Let It Be is nice but that’s all; but the stuff from Revolver to Abbey Road is sheer brilliance.
So what crimes do I hold against Across the Universe?
1. The plot crime: Across the Universe doesn’t have enough of a plot to fuel a five minute long Road Runner cartoon. It’s a tale about a guy from sixties Liverpool who goes to the USA in search of luck and falls for a girl while the Vietnam war is playing in the background, c'est tout.
I guess Across the Universe is trying to do a Forrest Gump and discuss nation shaping events that took place during the sixties against a Beatles background: black rights, gay rights, drugs, Vietnam, etc. It fails, though, because things are completely overshadowed by the items further down its list of deficiencies.
2. Character development offenses: None of the characters are developed enough to drive a film with. You get some superficial understanding of motives with the main characters but that’s it; the side roles are only there to provide lame excuses for people to burst into singing certain Beatles songs.
3. Excuses, excuses: The gutter level Across the Universe steeps to in order to justify the playing of certain Beatles’ songs is amazing. Just to give you one example, the character names include Jude, Lucy, Prudence and Sadie to name a few. What’s wrong with being more imaginative? My one year old would have done better.
4. Taking things out of context: As I have said, I like The Beatles. I was therefore greatly annoyed when certain songs of theirs were taken out of context. Let me clarify: it’s nice to take a song and use it out of context as a joke. It could even be nice in hundred more ways. But to take a song like I Want You (She’s So Heavy) that is obviously about the obsession that comes with love and turn it into an army recruitment song is a bit too much. The surreal way in which this is done (as per most of the film, come to think of that) doesn’t really contribute.
5. Cameos: The film is flooded with cameos of people singing Beatles stuff. There’s Joe Cocker, lots of people that are obviously famous but I don’t really know, and then there’s Bono whom by now I have grown to detest.
6. Illegal abattoirs: By far the worst crime committed by Across the Universe, worth sending off to The Chair on its own. The problem here is simple: The songs’ performances are so bad it is not funny. There is the issue of arrangements, and then there’s the issue of the actors’ singing level being something that degrade the quality standards of Australian Idol. To do that to some of the best songs this world has ever listened to, such as Happiness Is a Warm Gun, is a crime against the universe et al. Allow me to be blunt: there is not one song in Across the Universe that is even remotely passable; they’re just horrible, the type of thing that requires you to run and wash your ears immediately to avoid eternal contamination.
The only positive thing I can say about Across the Universe is that the prospects of watching it have caused me to re-listen to Beatles music. The film was so horrible, though, that I had to re-listen to Beatles music afterwards in order to ensure the performances' memory is erased. Which brings me to make a simple recommendation: If you want to get in touch with Beatles songs, by all means go ahead and do it; but do it by listening to their music. Their original music. It really is as simple as that. If you want to delve deeper into the meaning of the songs and the stories behind them, I would recommend the book A Hard Day’s Write.
Worst scene: The title of worst scene is heavily contested in Across the Universe. My choice is rather simple, a demonstration of how badly Beatles songs are integrated into the film. Prudence, one of the very randomly named characters in the film, who also happens to be one of the least developed and one of the most redundant, locks herself up in the heroes apartment’s toilet. In order to get Prudence out of the toilet, our heroes burst into singing “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play”.
Overall: Unbelievably bad. 1 out of 5 stars.


Mike said...

A crime against the universe?

I've been having the worst day at work, and the election has brought out sides of my co-workers I never, ever wished to see, since I don't frequent too many KKK rallies. Just know that your vitriolic reviews of Across the Universe and Sex and the City made my day, Moshe.

Moshe Reuveni said...

You remind me of the days before elections in Israel, when you learn that half of the people around you actually think that a good Arab is a dead one. And then you have to continue working with them.
Things are different in Australia; here people vote mostly for the one they expect to benefit their back pockets more. The morals are not much better, it's just that there's no one to kill in order to achieve similar goals.
As for the USA elections: not that I'm a big expert, but I think both parties are rather useless. Neither will deliver where it really counts, like addressing global warming, poverty and health (starting by changing the American system). And guns. The Republicans, however, stand for most of the things I would like to send down my computer's Recycle Bin, with Palin probably at the top of the list. How can a person representing such retarded notions get so high up the food chain is beyond me.

In conclusion, it may comfort you to know you've sent me to the dictionary to look for "vitriolic". Please stop making words up.
And thanks for reading!

Mike said...

Well, she comes from Alaska, where the "brain drain" is staggering. The best and the brightest typically leave after high school, and the dregs (intellectually speaking) are what's left.

It hasn't been talked about much, but Obama is pretty strong on gun issues ("F" rating from the NRA!), and he will deal with global warming. I couldn't find his stance on the Kyoto Protocol (maybe he hasn't been asked about it?), and he gets very high marks from numerous groups here in the States. Given the impending economic doldrums emerging here, poverty will be tough to deal with, but I've heard things he said in speeches and debates that indicate a systemic approach to problems for him, instead of just tackling "symptoms", which is what a lot of others do. And speaking as a health-care worker, I think Obama's plan is a lot better for everybody involved.

But I agree with you on the parties: I think that they enable people to vote for "brands", basically, and make it easier for candidates to clearly lay out policies and stances, and stick with them.

Moshe Reuveni said...

All I can say is that I hope you're right. I'm much more cynical than you are about the difference between words and actions. I'm also of the opinion that what I have heard so far does not constitute a thorough solution (but again, I am no expert on USA matters).
Case in point, global warming and the Kyoto Protocol. In Australia, we kicked out the Bush like Liberal party (Republicans equivalent) late last year and got the Labor party (Democrats equivalent) instead. One of their first moves was to sign Kyoto, leaving the USA as the only major country not to do so. The move was supported by lots of hoo-ha and patting ourselves on the shoulder for being so good and cool. And for generally having dicks so big that we showed those Americans.
Since then? Nothing. Australia has signed the agreement, but did anything, the slightest thing, change with the way Australia is going about its carbon emissions' way?

Wicked Little Critta said...

Well, excuse me, but I'm going to ignore the political commentary and talk about the film.

1. Plot. Absolutely, yes. I think because of them singing Beatles songs the entire time, it's hard to develop an actual plot. Not that that's an excuse, at the end of the day I didn't really care what happened.

2. Character Development. I totally agree. the characters were basically just singers, and they'd throw out a line or two here and there. I think the girl who played Lucy was the most guilty here...I walked away with no impression of her character whatsoever.

3. Excuses to play songs. This was laughable. You're entirely correct in that the worst scene was the Dear Prudence one. I kept thinking as they were singing, "Seriously? Are they really doing this? What the HELL does this have to do with ANYTHING??"

4. Out of Context. Here I begin to disagree with you. In general, I believe that part of the beauty of music is that it can become many things to many different people. And there's nothing wrong with that. It's an art form that affects people in different ways, and personally I love it when people are able to spin something differently. (Unless its purpose is to push an agenda that the writer didn't/wouldn't support, and even then, I think there are exceptions.)
I thought that the version of "I Want You(She's so Heavy)" was very engaging and extremely creative. And it definitely communicated a message pertinent to that time period.

5. Cameos. I guess so. I didn't hate them, but I didn't love them either.

6. Bad performances. While I'll admit that the acting performances were lacking (party due, I'm sure, to all the random songs), I can't agree with you about the singing performances. I think that pretty much all of them had good vocal quality, save Eddie Izzard, obviously. Perhaps your problem with it was that it wasn't your preferred vocal style? They did make a number of the Beatles songs more pop-y, so I can understand if someone hates pop music that they wouldn't care for the versions of these songs.

In the end, my opinion of the film was that it was an interesting collection of re-made Beatles music videos. Some very good, some not at all.

Moshe Reuveni said...

We're not in that much of a disagreement. Of course, deep inside I think you don't have a clue, but I respect your opinion. Sort of.
Enough joking. The reason why I have had problems with things you didn't are to do with me being very emotionally attached to the songs. I agree that an army recruitment version of I Want You is not that bad an idea, but I was appalled by the execution because of what that song means to me.
The same goes for the performances. You're right, I don't like pop music (in general; there are exceptions). As I said in my review, I did think the performances were along the lines of Australian Idol ones (American Idol for you; same franchise, same crap). Witnessing this poppy butchery done to my favorite songs was more than I could bear; it was a crime against my known universe.

"In the end, my opinion of the film was that it was an interesting collection of re-made Beatles music videos":
Fine, but as I said - in my opinion, re-listening to the original Beatles music is a much more rewarding experience. I didn't feel like I needed to witness a remake of Beatles music videos, and I definitely don't think so now.