Talking Movies

October 2, 2019

From the Archives: Across the Universe

Another rummage through the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers Julie Taymor’s under-watched and under-appreciated Beatles musical featuring the under-appreciated Joe Anderson.

Liverpudlian dock worker Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels to Princeton in the 1960s to find his long lost GI father but moves to New York with Max (Joe Anderson) and falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). When Max is sent to Vietnam, Lucy’s political activism tears her away from Jude…

Musicals, like Westerns, seem to be experiencing something of a renaissance. But both genres are nowadays farcically burdened with justifying their conventions and director Julie Taymor never quite establishes whether people are just going to burst into song randomly like in 1950s musicals or in archly contrived scenarios like 2002’s Chicago. Instead she throws both styles together, which works fine for the most part, but this is definitely more Moulin Rouge! than Chicago. Be warned, there’s a good deal of the overt theatricality you’d expect from a director with Godlike status on Broadway. The use of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ is fantastic as Max is accosted by a poster of Uncle Sam and choreographed sergeant majors at his army medical exam before a visual gag far too good to spoil here. However, this use of CGI and wooden masks presages the utter nonsense that begins when Bono arrives to sing ‘I Am the Walrus’. The use of photographic negative and trippy imagery that takes over proceedings quickly becomes very irritating and makes the running time of the film seem grotesquely overlong.

A simpler early sequence best exemplifies the cleverness with which Taymor approaches the songs. The extremely poppy ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is transformed into a slow minimalist heartbreaker of a song as lesbian cheerleader Prudence (TV Carpio) serenades the lead cheerleader while footballers tackle each other as a tumbling chorus. If you don’t like this sequence then you will hate this film and most probably punch the person behind you who mutters ‘That’s Awesome!!’ Taymor at her best is able to wring unexpected meaning from the over-familiar songs and brings out the sadness implicit in Lennon and McCartney’s fondness for minor key compositions. At her worst she completely loses the realism of the Jude/Lucy love story and the sly wit in making the songs emerge organically from action, indulging instead in symbolical visual zaniness that plays like a bad 1960s Roger Corman exploitation film.

Jim Sturgess as Jude can sing but he lacks charisma and Evan Rachel Wood is good as Lucy but not good enough to carry him, she should have really have been playing opposite Joe Anderson who is wonderful as the raffish Max. It takes heroic resolve to overlook Taymor’s wayward psychedelia but she does return to the realism of musicals so that the finale has a nice emotional oomph with the end credits a neat pay off for a gag we’ve been waiting for the whole length of the film. No I’m not going to tell you what it is, go see it yourself.

3/5

August 18, 2011

Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie

Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie is less concert film, featuring most of the cast of Glee performing in character, and more socio-political manifesto by Ryan Murphy.

The film opens with backstage interviews with the Glee cast. Oddly some of them stay in character and some don’t. Their character names then flash up on screen during their on-stage introduction and Artie stays in his wheelchair just to hammer home that they’re performing in character as New Directions, sort of. If the film wants to refer to the performers by character name, I’m happy to oblige and save myself a visit to IMDb. Proceedings begin, of course, with the trademark god-awful cover of Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. The words ‘of course’ apply to most of the numbers. This is a greatest hits package of songs that the show has affixed to particular characters, all of whom get the chance to step up and strut their stuff.

Miss Holliday cameos for one Ce Loo song, but Mr Schuster is conspicuously absent. Puck, Mercedes and Artie all get to show off with solo songs but the most notable turn is Britney’s energetic performance of ‘I’m a Slave 4 U’, which is outrageously sleazy, and leads to the thought that 3-D works well for horror and animation but is perhaps also something that could enhance musicals. Not that it works particularly well here, the choreography is too basic for there to really be anything to show off, but there are moments when it adds something. But while they fail to exploit the third dimension these are good performances – Mike Chang can dance! As indeed can the other secondary characters. But then the lead characters can really sing. Rachel belts out ‘Firework’, and, as Nadine O’Regan has noted, Katy Perry’s lungs resemble those of a blue whale.

Regrettably this is not solely a concert film. There are endless inserts following three Glee fans. Apparently Glee cures Asperger’s, makes dwarves (their term) popular and enables gay students survive high school. Apparently I hallucinated three hilarious pre-Glee seasons of Ugly Betty valorising a hopeless nerd, celebrating difference and positively depicting a fabulous high school student… Lady GaGa’s ‘Born This Way’ is the show-climaxing statement of socio-political intent, but Glee cannot sustain this solving-all-the-world’s-problems-with-a-soft-shoe-shuffle pomposity – what could? Glee is just a TV show with glaring limitations. It’s a blender which flattens all music. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, Dylan’s ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ and Massive Attack’s ‘Inertia Creeps’ would all emerge sounding the same, as deeply over-produced pop. I previously criticised its lack of ambition beside Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, and here Kurt performs ‘I Want to Hold your Hand’ – precisely as Taymor reinterpreted it! Even their innovations are derivative!!

This is a genuinely enjoyable concert, but the documentary segments are actually mildly disturbing…

2/5

(P.S. Stay on after the credits for another signature song…)

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