Written by: Zach Subar, Special to CC2K
Do writers of musicals aspire to be corny and dumb? Is that what people eat up, and what made Cats, My Fair Lady and many other musicals so successful?
If that’s the formula that works, then Julie Taymor (of The Lion King musical fame) and company have pulled off quite a hit with the upcoming Beatles musical Across the Universe. I retched a few times. I wanted to punch the screen. I threw my notebook down and buried my face in my hands. The dialogue is cliché and unimaginative; the song choices at times too convenient and cutesy.
It was easy to forget, though, that I wasn’t watching the musical being performed. I wasn’t hearing the music. I was reading words on a page, mostly Beatles lyrics. And ideas behind musicals are almost never high-quality and original. There is almost always one central idea or theme (in this case, Vietnam) and one or more love stories (with syrupy sweet sentimental love songs alternating with angry, bitter music, depending on a relationship’s mood at that given moment). That’s it. We suspend our disbelief because, if it’s well done, the music helps us forget that we are watching a show with a brainless plot.
When dealing with a band like the Beatles, though, I’m not sure if the problem can be resolved that easily. This is a band who changed music as we know it. To create a music with their songs is tricky—their songs must be handled very carefully and delicately. A mis-usage of “I Am the Walrus” or anything else is enough to bastardize our image of that song forever.
And mis-usages abound here, including—but not limited to—the singing of “I Am the Walrus” when a man named Doctor Robert visits the main characters, bearing drugs and other fun, similar objects. It’s supposed to be trippy! Get it! Yes! Genius writing!
I also want to punch the screen when one character, named Prudence (of course), gets sad. Guess what plays? “Dear Prudence” is cringe-worthy. When it’s the seminal moment in the story for the main character, Jude, the upcoming song is no mystery either. On paper, most of the time, the script seems predictable and annoying.
The writers also want you to know that these characters want to make a statement. They’re part of a revolution, and they smoke cannabis throughout, as any good revolutionary child does. Some want to plan huge protests against Vietnam, others aren’t so sure. That’s all well and good, but the issue of Vietnam has been probed often in film and literature, at times very successfully. In the very shallow treatment this film gives to the war that defined the generation in question in this movie, it doesn’t really manage to say anything new or original about the war. It mainly serves as a backdrop for Beatles songs to come out, one after another, with “Yesterday” (shocker) playing at an upsetting, war-tinged moment towards the end of the film. You can’t understand what the script is saying about Vietnam as a bold, fresh new outlook on the war.
The film, then, is teetering on the edge. There are so many pitfalls in the script—so many ways that it could just be a cliché, unnecessary, 45 million dollar failure. The only thing that can save it, really, is if the musical performances are slam-dunks.
When it comes down to it, a good Beatles song is a good Beatles song, regardless of where or when it’s played. If stars Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood can come through with great performances, and Taymor can replicate her fantastic, sometimes surreal Lion King style, then the movie could work. There’s no reason to believe that it won’t happen. But there’s a lot of pressure on the production aspect of this project take a script so full of obstacles and make it into something special.
The ultimate question to ask, I guess, about any musical that attempts to replicate Beatles songs is: what would Paul, John, George and Ringo have thought about what others are trying to do with their music. I haven’t heard what Paul and Ringo have had to say about it, but I can assure you that if they somehow had the script communicated to them, John and George would be turning in their graves as I write this. This is one sad song they even they can't make better.