Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Best 60s Movie Yet

It's been out for awhile, but after seeing it for the third time I'm ready to pronounce Across the Universe as the best movie about the 60s made since the 60s.

This movie that tells a very 60s story mostly with Beatles songs has all the hallmarks of its director, Julie Taymor: the masks, the hints of Balinese dancing and whirling dervishes, the vivid and colorful imagination and surprising stylized sequences together with realism. But with an ingenious story and script by Ian La Frenais (who I remember as the first writer of the Lovejoy series from the BBC, which by coincidence I'm currently watching again on DVD), it depicts the 60s as I remember them, especially emotionally. There may be a few instances of incorrect chronology, but truly there are no false notes.

Using brilliant unknowns as stars, and pretty much hiding stars in musical performances, the story of a boy from Liverpool named Jude and his romance with an American girl named Lucy covers so much and so many characters that ring true. The dinner table debates with parents, the idiotic measures friends advised to flunk the draft physical--it's all exactly right.

So is the clash between a politically radicalized Lucy and the artistic Jude, whose drawings even resemble John Lennon's. The movie plays with 60s myth as well as realities, imagining what might have happened if Janis Joplin had hooked up with Jimi Hendrix. Or the clash of psychedelic egos when a Ken Kesey type is dissed by the Tim Leary figure, as West Coast fails to meet East. (There's even a brief shot on Kesey's bus of a guy typing madly--a Tom Wolfe joke?)

Sure, it's a romance, so instead of dying young from overdoses, the Janis and Jimi figures find true love in each other, and after Jude gets girl, and Jude loses girl, Jude and Lucy seem to reunite. And the LSD episodes are playful and magical and innocent--but the truth is that for a lot of us, it all was pretty innocent. At first anyway. The draft physical sequence may be overstylized to make a familiar point, but it does suggest how helpless and strange the experience was, and the Vietnam sequences have that Apocalypse Now surreal tinge that vets suggest was very real.

And sure, there's a lot left out (my beef with these stories about anti-war awakenings is that people are never seen reading, which is mostly how we learned this stuff. Not very cinematic I guess, unless you're French New Wave--they could show people reading as a dramatic act.) But it's stripped down to myth, and this myth represents the reality. If you weren't there and you want to know what the 60s were like, this gives you a pretty good idea.

At the same time it's also wish fulfillment--that is it fulfills our fondest wish of life as a series of Beatles songs. So that's a pretty satisfying way of identifying with this.

For serious Beatles fans, it's got endless layers. The music is done very well, first of all. By now that music has been absorbed into the cultural and musical bloodstream. But there are lots of wonderful references, right down to shots that homage Beatles videos and movies, A Hard Day's Night, Yellow Submarine and the last Beatles concert, on the rooftop in Let It Be. Early in the film there's a "With a Little Help From My Friends" sequence that veers from a fairly straightforward Sergeant Pepper's cover to referencing the Joe Cocker version. What ever happened to Joe Cocker? you're wondering. Well, in a few minutes, there he is, the real Joe Cocker: probably as you figured he'd end up, as a bum singing in the subway tunnel, and looking comfortable doing it.

Anyway, if you haven't seen it, do. It's long but there isn't a second wasted. The "Dear Prudence" sequence alone will knock you out, and the whole movie gets better with repeated viewings. It's visually brilliant, eclectic without being overbearing. (The 60s themselves mashed artistic and historical styles, with a lot more meaning, sincerity and glee than subsequent glib or grim postmodernism.) The casting is brilliant--you'll feel through these actors. Across the Universe is a boomer classic.

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