After an intensely screened screening featuring nervous suits delivered in limousines and gentle but firm gentlemen controlling the ticket flow to assure a certain target group would be tested for their age, predilections, and proclivities, and wand wielding security guards frisking patrons for any signs of recording devices - including cellphones - I entered what we were told was the first-ever-in the-world test market screening of the Taymor/Beatles extravaganza "Across the Universe".
Thoughts of Peter Frampton in Sergeant Peppers' haunted me, but my admiration of Taymor, and, well, I was actually a kid IN the audience of the Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. I was even in a band that appeared on MTV in their first hour (Robin Lane & the Chartbusters)! Iattended my share of protests, worked with Reverend Daniel Berrigan, got psychedelic and ... well... enough about my qualifications to review the movie - it seems I still don't fit the intended demographic - it's the first time I ever lied my age downward! So despite that the studio may change some things - here's what I saw at this stage of tweaking the film.
Without quibbling over loose plot points and misguided scenes as they seem to be still tinkering with those things (and there are there are several out of place and unexplained scenes) - I've rarely seen such a feverish work of persistent video art in the service of great music. These are NOT small music videos wrapped around a questionable plot. Taymor's vision as a director seems to borrow from everything. Her story ideally wants to conjure up the not just the frolic, but the frenzy and passion of the 60's.
There is what looks like Jan Svankmajer in a stunning industrial dance scene in a draft board as civilians are turned into soldiers. Another scene has giant puppet pageantry straight out of Peter Schumman's Bread and Puppet Theater and Resurrection Circus. There are joyous location street dancing scenes, and breathtaking Technicolor composites. One such scene is a dreamlike vision done entirely in the psychedelic solarised colors of Richard Avedon's Beatle portraits. Her set designs are at times so clever and colorful, you laugh at the unrestrained joy and daring.
She begins with a glorious reinvention of the fifties musical, and careens into pure psychedelic delirium. The cinematography is rich and varied to the purpose of each scene, and dance sequences explode into place. The film moves from the innocence of small town upper-middle class America, to the nascent hippy scene in the village, to a sort of hallucinatory Garden of Eden (with too much but amusing Bono as a Ken Kesey Merry Prankster guru type). It moves to romance, and onto the dangers and volatility of the anti war 60's. All this is rendered through a constant flow Beatles songs delivered amidst magnificent set designs and video composites.
For the most part the music is respectfully and tastefully rearranged. (and without the Pavlovian shamelessness of the Beatles as they were used in "I Am Sam") A ballad version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" movingly reinvents the song. I don't know if the actors actually sing but you could have fooled me. It is all carefully synched up. Even the drummers and strummers are always in synch. The actors are charming, but once again, as she has done in "Digging To China" to "Down In the Valley", Evan Rachael Wood rivets the film. It would too much to believe she could also sing like the angel - but darn if her throat isn't in sych! The voice is beautiful. At times songs and sounds collide like the Beatles in "Number Nine". The collision of a war protest at Columbia University with Helter Skelter over Dear Prudence is brilliant. Taymor has edginess that matches the sixties zeitgeist, and avoids the vacuous cotton candy fluff of Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge".
I think it would be wise to address Taymor's strength, which is the darker political vision. The film's intented audience ought to be as angry as they were in the 60s, marching in the streets and standing up to an arrogant and corrupt administration with their trillion dollar war. The parallels to today are obvious. The time is right for such a film with such politics. It shouldn't get comprised by too much gooey and gratuitous romance.
I overheard two young girls afterward say; "I don't know why they have to redo those great songs?" - whereas a much older couple were saying; "This was great very artistic, fun - it really caught the feeling of the era." I hope the handlers in their infinite wisdom don't sell out the ability of this film to be politically relevant as well as beautiful.
Characters and situations that obviously echo Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, the Weathermen, the Weather Underground, Abbie Hoffmann, Ken Kesey, draft card burning, 60's clubs in the East Village (Cafe Wha? becomes Cafe Huh?), and other sly references are fun to pick out, though I assume details are undergoing revision for clarity. I don't think this is just a film for 20 somethings. The kids I sat with remarked; "This is important stuff for our generation to remember." Taymor's darker sensibilities are what the film really needs to keep it from being perceived as so much razzle dazzle and romance. There's a subversive edge to this story.
Visually, it is unquestionably a masterpiece of video art. Its final judgment may be that it can speak across generations.