Across the Universe

January 21, 2008

One of the advantages of traveling a lot is that you often end up watching outstanding films that you would otherwise miss. I flew out to Washington today by way of Raleigh from Gatwick (my loyalty to American Airlines is restored by the way hence the indirect route). I watched the Jane Austin Book Club first which ain’t bad although if you were a Jane Austin fan you would get more out of it. I rate Austin as marginally better than Dickens who I despise and not on a par with Thackerey and Trollop by the way if we are moving out of the modern period. However I have read her six novels which is more than I can say for Dickens where only A Tale of Two Cities ever appealed, so I got some of the references in what is a well told story. However while its worth watching, its not worth going out of your way to find. In contrast the above referenced film, Across the Universe is outstanding.

It was described in the brochure as follows: A young man from Liverpool travels to America in the late 1960s to find a new life. He counters a nation in turmoil and a counter culture devoted to free speech, civil rights, the anti-war movement, and rock ‘n’ roll. Now this is one of the least attractive descriptions for what is an outstanding medley of images and music from the sixties. It almost put me off, but I had seen everything else so I went for it and I am really pleased I did.

The story lines are sophisticated, but it is told through a mixture of images and songs. This is not a conventional movie. It has many of the features of Oh Brother where art thou which I think is the best of the Cohen Brothers offerings to date; I am thinking here of the Ku Klux Clan and Siren scenes. It uses a moving form of photo journalism that is reminiscent of Ken Burns at his best. There are elements of Lewis Caroll, you feel you have (in the words of one of the characters) gone down the rabbit hole. The animation in the center is clearly influenced by Gillham in Monty Python merged with Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine.

The balance of the spoken word to music is more or less perfect and allows the multiple threads of the story to emerge naturally, never forced but never boring. It has strong realistic elements from the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. Many of the images are from album covers of the time. The breakup between the two main characters (Hey Jude and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) is achieved by a confrontational rendering of Revolution by the artist hero to the activist heroine. Blackbird Singing in the Dead of Night, makes her realise her error. Hey Jude performs the same function for him performed in the pubs, docks and streets of Liverpool before he returns to America. Jude’s brother, who brought them together in the first place drops out of the Ivy League and returns wounded and changed from Vietnam to effect the reconciliation. The hospital scene with the drug dispensing nurses and the gyrating priest is magnificent. All you need is Love sees them reunite, and no it is far from twee, it is deeply moving.

I went to University in 1972 so the late sixties is not my exact period, but it had a profound influence on my generation. I am not sure how much someone who did not grow up in and around that period would understand all the nuances, but you don’t need to to enjoy and be moved by it. The film is by no means perfect, but any imperfections are minor in an undertaking of this ambition, and it largely succeeds in that ambition. Mostly Beetles lyrics interpreted afresh in the context of the actors and the images. All are sung naturally as a part of the multiple love stories that underpin its narrative thread.

I strongly recommend it: watch for the image of the red apple that confirms the separation and precedes the reconciliation, it is a great transitionary device and could easily be missed, although it is front and centre on the web site.

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