I need to get the embarrassing details out there here at the start: The first versions of Beatles songs I ever grew to love were – gulp – on the double-album soundtrack of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the 1978 disaster starring Peter Frampton, the Bee Gees, Steve Martin, George Burns, Aerosmith and Earth, Wind & Fire.

Yes, it’s true. I didn’t hear John, Paul, George and Ringo’s “Strawberry Fields” first. I heard Sandy Farina’s. And I loved it.

Eventually I came to my senses (ie, I grew up) and heard the Beatles’ “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and actually enjoyed it more than Steve Martin’s.

Which brings me to my current fascination: the movie musical Across the Universe.

This is a safe space to talk about musicals, of course, but there is some real theater cred at work here in the person of director Julie Taymor, the Tony Award-winning director of Disney’s The Lion King.

In case you don’t know what Across the Universe is, it’s the story of the 1960s, from the carefree early days (the last vestiges of the fabulous ‘50s) to the war-torn, protest-filled, assassination-laden end of the decade. And it’s all told using Beatles songs sung by the actors.

Think of Grease, Hair, Tommy (and even High School Musical comes to mind in a gymnasium scene involving basketballs) and Moulin Rouge and you’ll begin to get Taymor’s fantastical approach.

I loved this movie. I’ve seen it twice and fallen hard for the soundtrack (the complete double-disc version on iTunes rather than the abbreviated single-disc version on store shelves). You either get on board for this and let Taymor and her cohorts dazzle your mind and heart or you just sit there thinking: This is stupid. Give me my Beatles CDs and I’ll just slit my wrists now.

Clearly I was in the former category. It’s hard not to dig a movie that recasts “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” as a lesbian cheerleader’s heart-rending ballad directed to a fellow cheerleader. T.V. Carpio is the actress playing the role, and she’s fabulous.

So is Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy and Jim Sturgess as Jude, the young lovers – she from upper middle-class America, he from lower working-class Liverpool – caught up in the changing tides of the storm-tossed decade. Both sing beautifully (she’s got a sweet vibrato, and he sounds like Ewan MacGregor).

The best scenes are the most theatrical: Sturgess singing “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (a truly fabulous song I didn’t previously know, which gives me renewed interest in exploring the ENTIRE Beatles back catalogue) in a bowling alley. In terms of movie musical bowling alley scenes, it’s much better than “Score Tonight” from Grease 2.

Other highlights include a frat-boyish “With a Little Help from My Friends,” a dynamic “I Want You/She’s So Heavy” with some great dancing and masks (with Taymor, of course there are masks) and a soul-stirring gospel “Let It Be” that takes place during the Detroit riots.

How remarkable is it that this year we’ve had two wildly different, wildly enjoyable movie musicals (the other one being, of course, Hairspray)? Across the Universe certainly isn’t for every taste, but musical lovers – and you know who you are – will eat it up.

And to all those Beatles purists out there who can’t stomach the notion of actors (and Joe Cocker and Bono and Eddie Izzard) covering Beatles songs, I have this to say: I was introduced to the Beatles through a terrible movie, and made my way eventually to the lads from Liverpool. Across the Universe, which is a whole lot better, more intelligent and artistically alive, will lead a whole new generation to discover for themselves why the Beatles are so extraordinary and so phenomenally timeless.

Finally, “Let It Be” is sung, primarily, by Carol Woods, a veteran stage performer who just happens to be the best thing in Blues in the Night, the hit musical revue now at San Francisco’s Post Street Theatre. She’s the best thing in the show, and you shouldn’t miss her.

Here’s the trailer:

There are more clips and sound bytes at the official site here.

6 thoughts on “Beatlemania

  1. You can’t know what it was like to be in America in the 60’s in your teens, poised in front of Ed Sullivan for the first glimpse of the Beatles, living for nothing else forevermoreafterwards but the release of the next Beatles Album, movie, or bubblegum card. I Wanna Hold Your Hand seems sweet now, but then it was the breath-taking harmony of 4 separate and different musicians in a form not previously available in beach and car toons. I’m sorry for your first exposure. But then I’m sorry for anyone who missed 1964-5. The whole decade.
    But the music survived the decade. Beatle songs re-released from new tapes (Anthology), remixed for new albums (Love), sung by new artists, in new movies (I Am Sam), keep that anxious anticipation of the next Beatles thing alive. I’m always amazed at how well new artists do the Beatles. Can’t wait to see the movie, download the album (thanks for the tip), and relive the decade.

  2. I saw the movie and even though i wasn’t around for the decade it really made me see how things really haven’t changed in today’s world. I fell in love with this movie! The music is great and the movie does a good job of showing the relationship between the Vietnam war and the war we are currently fighting. I found myself falling in love with Jim Surgess and when i found out that it was HIS singing voice it made me melt even more….It’s a great movie…one tip… Though this movie is rated pg-13 I found myself wondering why it wasn’t R. Parents Should know that it should be watched by them before their 13 year old see it.


  3. I am one of those kids who was sitting in front of the black and white Zenith on that Sunday night the Beatles first took the stage in the US. What a ride they took us on and it’s a ride I’m still on to this day. I’m one of those who see’s the brilliance in Magical Mystery Tour and will glady sit through Macca’s Give My Regards to Broadstreet. So I was naturally thrilled when I started seeing the trailers for Across the Universe and was the first in line to see it when it hit the theater. I have been back 5 times since to see it as each time I find small references to different Beatles songs that I overlooked the time before. You don’t have to be a big Beatles fan to appreciate the music or awesome filmwork of this movie. It’s like taking a trip without the LSD. Bono as the Walrus….how appropriate as was Joe Cocker singing in the subway (not the song you’re expecting him to sing). Naturally I already have the soundtrack…the extended version of course and have all but worn it out already. I highly recommend this movie for anyone who likes the Beatles but aren’t above hearing actors sing their music. And is it my imagination but does Jim Sturgess remind anyone of a young Paul? 5 stars

  4. Probably one of the best movies I have seen in a long time, and I love it even more after the fact. I really can’t wait to see it again. I wasn’t around for decade and unfortunately only was introduced to The Beatles in college but after this movie I have become truly fascinated with the music and subject matter. I have really gone and listended to every Beatles song out there since I saw the film and I cannot get enough. Every aspect of the film is perfect, I give it a two big thumbs up for anyone who is interested in witnessing something spectacular.

    “All you need is love”

  5. I finally got to see it. It didn’t release around Carson City, NV as early as some places. It was fantastic, better than I’d hoped. It made me hear the Lyrics for the first time. I think we were so taken away by the voices and the music that we couldn’t hear the Lyrics for the songs. It seems like the intent of this movie, either the writer’s or the director’s, was to make us appreciate how wonderfully poetic John, and Paul, and George, ok, even Ringo. Really were. And they were writing ABOUT stuff, too. I Wanna Hold Your Hand has always been my favorite song, but wow now. My favorite scene was when they looked across the rooftops at each other in the end, at the conclusion of the Strawberry (Apple) Studio roof-top concert, when we flashed back for an instant to “She Loves You” and it packed the whole movie, maybe the whole era in to the word Love. I’ll have to see it again and again to get all the symbolism. But here’s what I think. Sturgess is John. The “girl” in Norwegian Wood, the love interest, is America.

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