There is the casual Beatles fan, and then there’s me and Mark Lewisohn. (If you get that reference, you can join me and Mark Lewisohn.) Back in ’07 when this flick hit the theaters, about a half-dozen well-intentioned but clueless people asked me if I was going to rush out to see it, and my answer was “No, and if you go see it and I find out you did, then you and I are no longer on speaking terms.” What director Julie Taymor has concocted is a paen to “casual” Beatles fans and obnoxious, aging Baby Boomers, and a slap in the face to serious Beatles fans everywhere.
OK, that last sentence was a little obnoxious itself, but, dammit, I’m upset. So let me lay my case out slowly and clearly, simple enough for even a Doors fan to understand.
First of all, I hate movie musicals. I’ll admit, I can enjoy a musical live on stage, where a certain larger-than-lifeness is required (and the skill required to put the performance over is undeniable), but the minute a musical is translated to celluloid, it becomes overblown, hokey, and uncomfortable. A sensitive viewer comes to feel genuinely bad for the performers high-stepping across the screen, mouthing the typical banalities of a “musical theater” number as their sweating, straining mug is projected in close-up twenty feet high on a large screen for viewing by movie audiences, half of whom are misguided enough to draw some kind of pleasure from this, and the other half dragged into the theater unwillingly by the first half.
The whole purpose of a song in the musical is to further the plot or illuminate the motives of the characters. Trying to shoehorn a cluster of unrelated Beatles songs into this format will do neither the songs nor the audience any favors. Not even if you name the lead characters “Jude” and “Lucy.” (Jeeeeeeeesus!) Has no one learned the lesson handed down by the 1978 Bee Gees movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? (Female lead: “Strawberry Fields.” Male lead: “Billy Shears.” Results: Trainwreck.) Beatles songs exist on a universal plane, and to try to corral them into a half-assed narrative benefits no one.
Let’s talk about Julie Taymor, director of Titus, Frida, and the Broadway version of The Lion King. (And Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, which she wisely washed her hands of before it opened.) Although I was struck by some of her visual ideas in Titus, I’ve always felt there was something a little too PBS about Taymor. When you watch her stuff, you are going to Learn, by God. You are going to Appreciate. With this new film, she is making a BOLD STATEMENT about the SIXTIES and DRUGS and VIETNAM. Far out, man.
The music of the Beatles is timeless, not topical, and Taymor has misjudged that. By using their songs to make her “statement,” she has reduced them to another token of a bygone era. In her mind, their “cultural” impact at the time is more important than their musical impact. She has reduced them to headshop novelties, lumped in with tie-dye, VW buses, and Che Guevara T-shirts. They have become cause-oriented sloganeers, figureheads rather than the best rock band of any era.
Her muddled attempt to put the Beatles in a time capsule is the core of Taymor’s lack of understanding of the group. The Beatles were not spokesmen for the psychedelic drugs (“I’ll shut up about it if you will,” McCartney told the press when asked about LSD in 1967), nor did they make any public statements about the Vietnam War (“All our songs are anti-war,” was all Lennon would say at the time. His activist era would not begin until after the Beatles.) The Beatles put their music ahead of any social or political causes, and that’s what makes them great, and what makes their material still relevant.
Across The Universe is cheap opportunism, pandering to the faux-hippie revival that has never quite managed to break into the mainstream, but has been quietly bubbling under the surface and annoying people since the late ’80s. And it’s another reason to have a latent desire to kick Bono in the nuts.
I came to the Beatles completely ignorant of their cultural trappings, neither knowing about (nor giving a shit about if I had known about) hippies, drugs, Vietnam, etc. It was early 1982. Lennon was just over a year in his grave, McCartney’s hair was still naturally brown, and I was seven years old and pawing through a carrying case of old 45s.
I didn’t have anyone I would count as a big influence on my taste at that early age. My sister was in her sophomore year of high school, and not really “into” music. She was a Top 40 radio chick all the way, and her skimpy LP collection was dominated by Journey, Styx, and Foreigner. I had eyed my parents’ 8-track collection a few times before, and was not reeled in by Kenny Rogers, Neil Sedaka, Phoebe Snow, or the A Star Is Born soundtrack. (The cover of which boasted a shirtless Kris Kristofferson practically mounting the poodle-permed Barbara Streisand in a carnal frenzy. Who says ol’ Kris isn’t a good actor?)
The case of 45s, once belonging, I believe, to my mom’s old roommate almost fifteen years earlier, had been moldering in the garage, closet, or basement, depending on where it got shuffled to in the course of household moves or reorganizations. I dug it out in a moment of idle curiosity, and began spinning the 45s on the turntable in my sister’s room. The Turtles, Grand Funk, Gerry And The Pacemakers, Elton John, Harry Nilsson…all went by in a wave of mediocrity. (I was amused by playing Grand Funk at 78 rpm, and Gerry & co. at 33). Then I came to a single with the orange-yellow Capitol Records swirl on the label. It was The Beatles. “We Can Work It Out / Day Tripper.” I put it on, and nothing was ever the same. I’ve always compared it to The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy opened the farmhouse door, and drab black-and-white Kansas turned into glorious, Technicolor Oz. This wasn’t Styx or Neil Sedaka. This was life.
There were two other Beatles singles in the case: “Love Me Do / P.S. I Love You” and “Yesterday / Act Naturally.” Both singles middle-of-the-road by Beatles standards. But even to my untrained, seven-year-old ears, they stood head and shoulders above everything else I’d ever heard. (I remember asking myself what the hell had happened to them on “Act Naturally.” I discovered later on my musical journey that is was Ringo bellowing the lead vocal.)
The three singles were spun repeatedly by me for days, or possibly weeks, until I demanded more. In those days, there were no music stores in small towns. Nor were there big box megastores that have recently sprouted in such abundance. People who wanted to buy music either traveled to the big city (Sacramento), or perused the tiny music section of the local drugstore, Value Giant. Until recently, Value Giant had been my source for Star Wars action figures. But I was on a new mission now. Luckily, Value Giant stocked Beatles LPs in sufficient quantity, and I scored a copy of the double-album compilation The Beatles 1962-1966. The Fab Four was pictured on the front, and I had my mom write their names over their pictures in Sharpie so I could learn to tell them apart. I was so enamored of my new acquisition it sat next to me on the couch as I ate my spaghetti dinner off a TV tray watching Joker’s Wild. I dropped a forkful of spaghetti on it. I wiped it off as best I could, seven-year-old boys are not known for their wiping off skills, and as I look at the album today, there are still a few browned specks of 30-year-old spaghetti sauce just above Lennon’s right ear.
Christmases, birthdays, and special occasions over the next four years were always marked by a few new-to-me Beatles albums. I became a master lip-syncher, locking myself in my room, and flailing away for hours on end on a tennis-racket guitar, and later, a real (though cheap) Harmony electric guitar. Beatles music embedded itself on my brain as permanently as the ability to breathe. I listened to nothing else. My library of Beatles-related books slowly creeped its way across my shelf.
I think I got my last two albums in the summer of ’86 (the soundtrack to Yellow Submarine, and the compilation Hey Jude, which was the only album at the time on which “Rain” was available). Right around that time, I heard ominous rumors about a new format that would soon make records obsolete: the “compact disc.” I finally made the jump to CDs at the end of 1988. By then, my musical interests were starting to expand a little. But every week, like clockwork, for fifteen weeks, I would spend my allowance on a Beatles CD. Only when I had all 13 original Beatles albums (plus the two singles compilations) did I buy a CD by any other artist.
So I think I have legitmate grounds for a beef with Julie Taymor, who probably listens to a lot of coffeehouse jazz, “world music” and Windham Hill compilations.
(Semi-gross P.S.: I never learned to play guitar. In high school, a guitarist friend of mine looked at my old Harmony electric. “Who had this before you?” he asked. “No one,” I replied. “I got it right out of the box.” “It looks like its been played TONS,” he said, pointing out the white film that coated the frets. It was dead skin from my fingertips, left behind after years of “playing” the solos to “Nowhere Man,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Taxman” etc. in the privacy of my own concert hall.)