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.