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.