I got a lot of good advice from good friends on this one, before I ever saw Julie Taymor’s homage to the Beatles and the Counterculture era, “Across the Universe.” Some thought it could be smacked down against “Tommy” or “Hair,” for obvious reasons. Or “I Am Sam,” because both films share a Moptop soundtrack. (Remember when mags like “Teen” and “Tiger Beat” called the Beatles “The Four Moptops?”) And I was sorely tempted, as I love that story of a retarded man’s struggle to retain custody of his young daughter, and count it as one of my all time favorite films. Even Forrest Gump” got a mention, because “Universe” resembles it in the way it offers snapshot glimpses of the same period in American culture. But shortly into the viewing, I found myself recalling the movie version of “Rent,” because both films are ambitious yet flawed stories of a polyglot group of young people meeting during an explosive time in our history, easily becoming friends, and bursting into song at the slightest provocation.
See, here’s the thing: Although I grew up in this time period, I was never a Beatles fan. Guys couldn’t sing along with “The Four Eunuchs,” (my term for them at the time) their voices were just too high. So I went to see “Across the Universe” a little skeptical, but curious. And the movie does not start off well. I felt the first twenty minutes, mainly setup, was uninvolving; the paper-thin plot of Boy Meets Girl (American Heartlander Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Wood, meets Jim Sturgess as Brit Jude) was dull; and their breaking into song was stilted and uncomfortable. But by the end of this uplifting movie I had been turned into a bona fide follower of The Fab Four. Now I can wear pointy-toed ankle boots and hate Yoko with the best of ’em. Because the film thankfully finds its footing, both musically and dramatically, and delivers a hearty dose of feelgood that had the audience cheering through the credits. “Across the Universe” is not so much a paean to the Beatles as it is a celebration of Music, itself, and how it both reflects and influences our lives, in very positive ways. “Universe” is at its best when staging musical numbers that are full of imaginative, elaborate sets and clever photography; at its worst when it tries to shove the cast into love relationships that don’t always ring true.
The Defending Champion
“Rent” is the musical story of a likable group of young New Yorkers, some straight, some gay, and some of whom are afflicted with AIDS, struggling to pay the title dues, and also wrestling with love and personal growth. It is one of the longest running Broadway musicals; and there is an inherent danger and difficulty in transferring a work like that, so electric and beloved as a live performance, to the big screen. Highly energized songs that demand a pause at their end, for applause, are met with silence in a movie theater, leaving the audience feeling uncomfortable, and too aware of where they are. And it’s tough to maintain an upbeat tone when you’re sometimes singing about the most devastating illness since the Black Plague. The film version of “Rent” tries to overcome these challenges by incorporating several of the Broadway show’s cast into the movie, and briskly pacing the proceedings, with mixed success. The cast, led by Anthony Rapp, Rosario Dawson, Adam Pascal, and Jesse Martin, are all superb vocalists, and have acting chops, as well. Their sheer talent and exuberance, and the expert production of the memorable music numbers, especially a street scene highlighting magnetic Idina Menzel, make this movie a joy to watch. But they are let down by a mawkish, feel-sorry-for-yourself script that is starting to show its age. The irony is that the self-pity stems from the plights of the lovelorn, not the characters suffering from AIDS!
There was such a long time when filmmakers ignored musicals, because they weren’t considered moneymakers, that I am just happy whenever young, vocally talented actors get an opportunity to warble onscreen. I’m tired of hearing “Hey, did you see so-and-so on cable last night? I didn’t know he/she could sing!” So I’ll pay at the multiplex boxoffice for a musical, just to encourage Hollywood to continue to risk them. But are they worthy? With both these films, I’d say, yes. Although each is overlong, and could be trimmed by about twenty minutes, they deliver the goods. “Across the Universe,” especially, has a cast that is so appealing, and aided by cameos from Joe Cocker and Bono, that they stand on their own, without the music. And the music is excellent. The score runs the gamut of hauntingly beautiful, as in “Something,” to wryly humorous, as in “Dear Prudence,” to eye-popping, the dazzling rendition of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” In “Rent,” what you remember most are the in-your-face characterizations, the songs are just a plus. Anthony Rapp proves he can do anything as an actor, whether it’s this film, as Mark Cohen, the earnest Conscience of the group, or the shy nerd in “Dazed and Confused.” Jesse Martin, likewise, amazes me that he can convince as the gritty detective from “Law and Order,” or have you in tears playing “Rent’s” joyous, heart on his sleeve Tom Collins. Both films boast impressive production values, and cinematography that is top-notch. So which hits the high note?
“Rent” does not pay the silver screen landlord because of its Broadway origins. Its visual scope is necessarily narrower, and more claustrophobic, at least compared to today’s rival. “Across the Universe” had the ‘easier’ task, as it was meant to be a filmed piece in the first place. It takes full advantage of the medium, mixing its music with breathtaking vistas, special effects, and characters not as broad as those intended to reach the audience from a stage. You probably won’t notice the difference as much on your home screen, so go see and enjoy “Universe” on the largest, loudest screen available.