Here’s how bad Across the Universe is: As I was watching Julie Taymor’s pastiche of Beatles songs, I actually started thinking that it might not be such a bad idea to go back and rewatch Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, pretty widely considered one of the worst movies of the 1970s. At least it has a certain kitsch value. And now that we all have DVD players and 300” tvs, we can actually freeze-frame and try to pick out the 75 or so celebrities credited as “Our Guests at Heartland” in the big finale. (Did you know that Leif Garrett was in this? Dame Edna? Gwen Verdon?)
I wasn’t really holding out high hopes for Across the Universe—the trailer looks like just what it turned out to be, a lame excuse to string a bunch of Beatles songs together with a plot cobbled from names used in some of those songs: Jude, Lucy, Max, Sadie, etc, etc, etc.
The one thing I looked forward to was a display of imagination from director Julie Taymor, who brought The Lion King to Broadway and Shakespeare’s Titus to film with more pizzazz than anyone expected.
Failing to find that, I distracted myself through the 2 1/4 hour running time by noting the various musical films it either borrowed from or should have borrowed from. Just about all of these can be had on DVD for less than the price of two tickets, and in this opinion would be a much better investment:
Hair—Most of the plot seems lifted from Milos Foreman’s adaptation of the Broadway hit, which for my money is still the best of all the attempts to make a musical out of the 60s generation.
Pink Floyd The Wall—Taymor’s blocky-faced soldiers recall the various semi-faceless demons who haunt Bob Geldof’s “Pink.”
Moulin Rouge—As a singer, Universe lead Jim Sturgess has Ewan MacGregor’s overpowering bleat down to a T. Both of them sing a capella bits of “All You Need Is Love”: it would be interesting to play the two of them together, if you don’t mind bleeding eardrums.
Yellow Submarine—Here’s a tip: it helps a lot to use the real Beatles songs! Not to mention a plot that’s too silly to take seriously. And the animation is still luscious after nearly 40 years.
I Am Sam—Another tip: if all you want to do is put out a guaranteed-to-chart album of Beatles’ cover versions, stick it onto a movie that has pretty much nothing to do with the songs.
Tommy—If you’re going to go over the top, follow the lead of Ken Russell and charge over the top, stomping and screaming all the way, and with lots of inappropriately cast stars to boot. Is there any meaning to Ann-Margret rolling around in hundreds of gallons of baked beans? Does it really matter? And Jack Nicholson’s rendition (can’t really call it “singing”) of “Go to the Mirror” is on a par with Steve Martin’s “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Eddie Izzard’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in Across the Universe, all of wish make you long for the mellifluous subtlties of Williams Shatner’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
Mad Dogs and Englishmen—If you agree with me that the best part of Taymor’s film is 30 seconds of Joe Cocker singing “Come Together,” treat yourself to two hours of Joe at his 1971 prime.
Easy Rider—The look of Bono’s drug-addled Dr. Robert is based on Dennis Hopper here. I’m not sure what his legal options are.
Janis—Dana Fuchs impersonation of Janis Joplin in just about everything but the name is even more revolting when you compare it to the real thing.
All This and World War II—Just kidding, sort of: the handsomely boxed soundtrack to this documentary of WWII footage scored to remakes of Beatles songs by the likes of Peter Gabriel, Rod Stewart, Jeff Lynne and the Bee Gees was the must-have Christmas gift of 1976, but I don’t know anyone who ever actually saw this. Reportedly LA’s NuArt theater dug up a print for midnight shows over the summer.