The Beatles are inarguably the most famous, most influential, and most beloved pop group in history. Radio stations still program “Breakfast with the Beatles” on weekend mornings. A recent trailer designed to get theater patrons to silence their cell phones features “All Together Now.” What other band could chart an album forty years after it broke up? (Sure, maybe the Mills Brothers. Why won’t they call me?)
For the short time they were a recording unit, the Beatles gave us everything they had—more than 250 infectious, beautiful songs that speak to every generation. One would think that they had done enough. Let them be.
The curse of a capitalist society is that art must be commoditized to yield further profit; no stone is left unturned in the name of money and artistic license. The Beatles have been the victims of some of the worst artistic shit storms of the twentieth century. Put on your Hazmat suit; this sewer is deep and fragrant.
Let’s start with Across the Universe (2007). This big budget film features a clichéd and uninteresting plot that merely exists to glue together its awful musical numbers. At times one can actually hear the gears of director Julie Taymor’s exhausted musical invention grinding together as this film lurches along.
From the moment the main characters are introduced, we can see what is coming... Jude... Max... Lucy... Sadie... JoJo... Prudence... enough! Oh, and watch that bathroom window, because I just bet she will be coming through it.
At one point the character Max is shown hitting a broken fan with a HAMMER, and the audience is likewise hit over the head with a hammer. The enormous brown shit hammer of obviousness.
Speaking of Joe Cocker, he shows up to sing “Come Together.” Great – someone who knows how to cover the Beatles! Yet to show the measure of respect afforded him by the filmmakers, he gets to play a homeless beggar, a dirty hippy, and an oily pimp.
Across the Universe takes place in an “alternate universe” Sixties where no one has heard of the actual Beatles. The famous campus group Students For a Democratic Society (SDS) becomes Students for Democratic Reform. The famous Cafe Wha? in New York becomes the Cafe Huh? This is a moron's idea of cleverness.
A funky black guitarist seems to be Jimi Hendrix, only he is not. A blowsy blues singer seems to be Janis Joplin, only she is not. The film seems to think it is entertaining, only it is not. There must be a Sixties checklist for films like this: draft induction scene? Check. Everybody drops acid for a semi-lyrical group trip/ freakout? Check. Unrequited love? Check. Big puppets? Mais oui!
This checklist should be familiar to those who admire Milos Forman’s Hair (1979). Much of Across the Universe’s plot contrivances and even some of its choreography seem to have been stolen wholesale from Forman’s (better) film.
Eddie Izzard shows up to perpetrate the worst Beatles cover version in history; he sings (barely) “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” with the big puppets. Izzard even makes up his own lyrics – because, as everyone knows, Eddie Izzard is a better lyricist than Lennon and McCartney.
Proof that the film teeters schizophrenically between the inspired and the baffling is Max’s induction sequence. Animated Uncle Sam posters spring to life and sing “I Want You.” Hey, kinda cool! Then draftees in their underwear carry a huge Statue of Liberty through a rice paddy, singing “Carry That Weight.” Hey, kinda… what the fuck?
But the nadir of this film’s visualization of the music is a nauseating and grotesque sequence pairing strawberries with the Vietnam war. Artist Jude pins strawberries to a canvas. They bleed. He sings. He throws them into a can of paint. He throws them against a television showing footage from Vietnam. I throw up a little in my mouth. It's all very symbolic. Or pretentious. Or both. But mostly pretentious.
This movie contains hundreds of wrong-headed artistic decisions that point away from the Julie Taymor of The Lion King on Broadway and toward the future Julie Taymor of Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I actually like T.V. Carpio’s slow and sad version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and when Jude breaks into “I've Just Seen a Face” the film explodes with athletic choreography and fun camera tricks. Alas, for all too brief a time.
The “artistic crap-fest” antecedent of Taymor’s bloody turd parade is Michael Schultz’s Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978). Soon after this film’s release, the cut-out bins at every record store overflowed with copies of the soundtrack that they literally could not give away.
Like Across the Universe, SPLHCB plays the dumb “name game.” Peter Frampton plays Billy Shears. The Bee Gees play the Henderson brothers. Billy’s girlfriend is Strawberry…. wait for it… Fields. I keep waiting for a character named Aday Indalife.
The plot of SPLHCB has something to do with stealing the “essence of music,” symbolized by the eponymous band’s instruments. Frankie Howerd, a British comedian unknown on these shores, plays the villain, Mr. Mustard. He is mean. Get it? Steve Martin shows up to play Maxwell Edison and to overact as if he has just snorted a mountain of cocaine. The whole thing is just an excuse for ninety minutes of badly lip-synched Beatles tunes. Again, the film’s fatal flaw is its decision to tell a story.
Finally, the craziest narrative to be forcibly grafted to Beatles music must surely be the story of Adolph Hitler, in the barely released All This And World War II (1976). I am not making this up. Check out this trailer on the YouTubes:
Yes, the brainiacs at 20th Century Fox combined newsreel footage of WWII with cover versions of Beatles’ tunes. So the war itself is a “Magical Mystery Tour”… get it? Tojo is the “Sun King”… get it? Hitler relaxes at Bertchtesgaden and Helen Reddy sings “The Fool on the Hill.” See what they did there? The Axis Powers get by “With a Little Help from [their] Friends.” You get it, right? I see you nodding your head, but I still don’t think you get it.
The soundtrack album sold well; it featured Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Peter Gabriel.
The film was “recalled” by its studio after only two weeks in release. It has never been released on VHS or DVD. Can someone please send me a copy? Because I hate myself.
BETTER YET: One of the few artistic endeavors to use Beatles music and get it right eschews narrative completely. Cirque De Soleil’s Love live show in Las Vegas uses a “carnival of the mind” setting to suggest dreamscapes inspired by the songs. It does not attempt a linear narrative. No Judes, No Mr. Kites, no kidding.
The only wonderful, fitting use of a Beatles song I have ever seen outside of an actual Beatles movie is in Alan Parker’s seldom-screened Shoot the Moon. In the film, Diane Keaton has just learned that her husband wants a divorce. She sings “If I Fell” a capella in a bathtub, her soft, sad voice and the song perfectly capturing her broken heart.
And they didn’t even name her “Rita.”