Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Across the Universe, and Across the Years

I watched Across the Universe last night; actually this is the second time I've watched it (the local public library has the special edition 2 DVD set). It set off a series of thoughts and memories, which in turn led to this blog post.

I'm a definite child of the Beatles. I know yesterday was the anniversary of Elvis's death, but frankly I never cared much for him. When and where I grew up, Elvis was who the hicks with the greasy hair and white socks listened to. When I got older and went back to listen to the '50s musicians with greater understanding, I was more attracted to Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens and Roy Orbison than to Elvis. Elvis was a little too tame and mannered for me, while the others played a rawer, edgier music that I liked a lot better.

But most of all I was just the right age for the Beatles when they hit the airwaves. I was 11 years old when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and they nailed me right to the floor. "Love Me Do", "Please, Please Me", "I Want to Hold Your Hand"; this was stuff I'd never heard before, never even imagined. Then the Rolling Stones and The Who hit, and I drifted over to them because, once again, here was grittier, edgier, bluesier music that was more to my liking (and this in a kid who had yet to discover BB King, Muddy Waters, and Howlin' Wolf!).

But then the Beatles did the Rubber Soul and Revolver albums, and once again I was hearing music I'd never imagined, and I was hooked for good. The post-Help! Beatles were my Beatles, forever and ever and always. It was more adult music than the teen love paeans of their previous music (Al Kooper calls it "I Love You Pimple" music), more complex, and starting to get more metaphysical and poetic. By the time they broke up in 1970 I was a firm fan, and still am, of the band and the solo careers they pursued afterward.

Except for a couple of numbers, the post-Help! Beatles are the Beatles of Across the Universe, too. Released in 2007, creator and director Julie Taymor created a musical using the music of the Beatles as the vehicle for the story of teens growing up in the '60s and engaging with a world in a profound state of transformation. There's certainly a lot of "hippieness" in the story, as well as drug references necessary to explain certain things that happened back then, but there's also an engagement with the social issues of the day - the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the emergence of feminism and the Gay/Lesbian movement; it's all there. and it takes me right back to the ferment in my own life at the time.

One of the things Taymor tried to do in the film was to introduce younger generations to a time when people were passionate about the things they believed in. She says that she felt that the younger generations took so many of the cultural advancements of the '60s and early '70s for granted, so much so that the freedoms gained then were starting to be eroded without anybody caring or even noticing, and she wanted to relight that fire. For me, it pointed out just how much the things we fought for then have slowly slipped away.

Part of that was our own fault. We were so set, so focused, and we could only see things in black and white, good and evil. The irony is that many of us from back then got religion and became involved in the religious right and neo-conservatism, still seeing the world in the stark, black-and-white terms of the rigidly dogmatic. It still pains me to see so much of the passion involved in changing the world being channeled into a fearful reaction to those very changes. In many ways we were a very schizophrenic generation.

[An aside... Several scenes in the movie involved characters hitchhiking. Now I used to hitchhike everywhere, but last night I tried to remember the last time I did that, and discovered that it was probably around 1980 or so. It was around then that it started being very dangerous to hitch a ride; I had been getting lifts from some seriously creepy people around then and decided I could afford the bus after all. Now I wouldn't dare; the nation's highways seem to be the hunting grounds of serial killers and some seriously deranged individuals!]

Julie Traymor used 30 Beatles songs to move the movie along. Between arrangers, set designers, and choreographers, all these scenes are really well done. But two stand out for me. One is the setting for "Come Together"; it brings Jo-Jo, a black guitarist of the Jimi Hendrix variety, to New York from his home in Detroit, where he'd just buried his little brother, killed in the riots of 1968. It starts on the bus and follows as Jo-Jo makes his way through the streets of New York, sped on its way by the voice and the presence of the inimitable Joe Cocker. The choreography is seamless, and the musical arrangement of the song is absolutely fantastic. Take a look:

But for me the show-stopper is "Let It Be". The scene is two deaths and funerals, Jo-Jo's little brother in Detroit and a young soldier killed in Vietnam (the young soldier was the high school boyfriend of principal character Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Wood). And what's brilliant about the setting is that the song is set as a gospel song, with full choir and a soloist who gets the Spirit while singing (the song starts out with the voice of Timothy T. Mitchum, playing Jo-Jo's little brother). This is just a brilliant piece of work and really stands out in the movie:

One last video clip. This is from the special features disc, and it's from the "making of" documentary - the recording session with Timothy T. Mitchum and Carol Woods, the gospel singer in the "Let It Be" segment. In this, Julie Traynor explains why she made this movie, and shows the effect it had on the people involved.

Yup, real people did these things back then, and were involved and passionate about what they were doing. I think we need to relight that fire!


  1. I'd take the Beatles over Elvis any day! :)

  2. My daughter was quite caught up in the movie and so I saw it with her. So Beatles touch people today, too, even if they are too young to "remember" them.

  3. I agree about the relighting ceremony! But I am such a big fat whiner baby, I can't listen to anyone other than The Beatles sing a Beatles song. Yet. I know, I know. Give me a little more time?

  4. (Oh, unless it's my family singing along with the Rock Band, of course.)

  5. Actually I agree about the lack of passion younglings seem to have today. We seemed to be way more prone to getting involved, protesting, making ourselves heard. I did hire this once but I don't think I watched it all the way through, should give it another go. The clips are lovely.

  6. Roy, I had never heard of it let alone seen it. Just shows what a isolated world you can allow yourself to live in. I have watched the clips and I am addicted. I will buy the film before the weekend is out. Thanks

  7. Thanks for the heads up it looks great and that young man has an unbelievably wonderful voice! The smoke has had us in front of the tv watching movies to pass the time away. Watched men who stare at goats and I was pleasantly surprised...thought it was going to be not at all what it was. We also saw Burn after reading that was a good view as well. I always come away with some food for thought or some images to light my soul! thanks Roy!