When I was younger, I thought no one in the world disliked The Beatles. I naively thought they were that one band everyone liked, but as I grew older, I realised that more often than not, if people didn’t love them, they absolutely hated them. There was no middle ground.
But overall people like The Beatles. Few bands have been covered as much as them for example. Cirque de Soleil has a show based on their music, Yoko Ono keeps the image alive through her art work, there is a rock-band game focused on the Beatles and then there is the musical Across the Universe.
The soundtrack of Across the Universe does something what few other musicians have dared – that is, to change the arrangements of the songs. Many musicians simply cover the songs exactly like the Beatles did, like they don’t dare to mess with the aura of the song.
It is a fair point, many people take offense when the Beatles are covered badly, and rightly so in my opinion. It is always sad to hear something you love covered badly. Across the Universe, however manages to do most of the songs fair do’s. The director, Julie Taymor, said she wanted to have a new twist on the songs while still maintaining the original greatness.
The film follows a few young adults in the latter years of the 60s. Jude, Max, Lucy, Sadie, Prudence and others (all having names featured in Beatles songs), are randomly pushed together through fate of life. Spoilers ahead!
The soundtrack has 31 songs, which is sadly too many to be covered here, so only a few will be covered.
The film begins with Girl. Jude is sitting on the shore of England, somewhere outside Liverpool where he is from. There is a bit of an echo from Moulin Rouge, in this scene, since that film began similarly – Is there anybody going to listen to my story, all about the girl who came to stay.
It’s a haunting beginning, Jude singing with sadness in his voice, you can feel the pain in his voice. He loves this girl so much, and it draws you in immediately. It makes you curious.
The arrangement of the instruments in the song is just as haunting. Even though the original has a sadness set to it, there isn’t the same sort of desperation.
With a Little Help From My Friends is set at Max’s campus. Jude, Max and his friends have a rowdy night, filled with drugs, drinks and shenanigans.
The song begins with a sort of out of tune guitar which fits well with “What would you do if I sang out of tune”. This song is an important one, since it sets Jude’s and Max’s friendship.
The arrangement is quite different from the original, it’s more rocky and more modern. It makes you believe they are actually having a rowdy night. It’s intense, it’s fun, and then it ends when all of them fall asleep.
The fact that it is obviously sung live, makes it feel even more real.
When Jude meets Max’s sister, Lucy for the first time he breaks out singing I’ve Just Seen a Face. It reeks of optimism, and love. You can feel the way he just wants her and how happy he is that actually met her. With no regards to what her brother thinks of course or that he actually has a girlfriend, back home in England.
It took me ages to figure out which Beatles song this actually was, because I didn’t remember it. It is quite a bit different from the original, with a rockabilly sound instead of the beatlesque sound the originators were so famous for. I actually prefer this version to the Help! version.
The best arrangement of any song on the whole soundtrack is Let it Be. A young black kid from Detroit begins singing the song, in the midst of the Detroit riots, the kid gets killed. The singing switches to a fantabulous gospel singer. At the same time Lucy comes home to find that her army-boyfriend has died in battle.
It’s amazing that this song hasn’t always been a gospel song, it fits so perfectly. Again, this is sung live, which makes it even more powerful.
Max is drafted for the army. I Want You (You’re So Heavy) is sung by Max, because the army wants him, Sadie sings because she wants Jo-Jo, who moved from Detroit after the riots to New York, and Prudence sings because she wants Sadie.
During this song, the metaphors used are a few of the best I’ve seen in a film.
The recruitment soldiers are G.I Joe like in features, all hard angles and unnatural strength, producing soldiers in a factory like manner. And when they sing “You’re so heavy” , after the registration and medical examination, you can see the young American boys trampling over Vietnam in big boots, carrying the Statue of Liberty – the liberty of the U.S people is and was quite heavy on the young generation.
Originally this is a pretty heavy song, and it is made even heavier in the film. The choirs and Sadie’s raspy voice, coupled with Max’s American twang, make the song very dramatic. I miss it being as long as it is on Abbey Road though, that is one of the appeal of the song to me.
On an acid trip with Dr. Roberts, played by Bono, they end up in a weird place where there’s a tiny circus tent which is bigger on the inside. Out of the tent comes Eddie Izzard who tells us about the Being of the Benenfit of Mr. Kite and his show tonight. It is a flipped out scene which makes hardly any sense, but that is to be expected since they are all high as a kite.
Eddie Izzard does a splendid job of acting out the song in a fashion only he could do – and it is almost better than the original. It’s definitely funnier! I do admit though that I’d rather put the Beatles version on than this one, even though this is more fun. It just isn’t as fun if you aren’t watching it at the same time.
Then finally, Max is sent to war. Lucy gets involved with anti-war protests groups and things start to go badly for her and Jude. They don’t live in the same world any more. One night when Lucy and her revolutionary buddy are watching the news, Jude goes into his studio and starts singing Strawberry Fields Forever while doing artwork including strawberries. Later on in the song, Max joins in.
The bleeding strawberries are a good metaphor for the bleeding hearts all around.
The arrangement is pretty similar to the Beatles version, without the obvious voice change which the Beatles did. Jim Sturgess‘ and Joe Anderson‘s voice compliment each other like Paul’s and John’s voices did – even though they didn’t sing it together on Sgt. Peppers.
Max comes home, a wounded shell-shocked man. And Jude is back in Liverpool, after having been thrown out of the U.S because of an invalid visa. Blackbird shows the time after all dreams are dead.
This is one of the songs I least like on the soundtrack, simply because the original guitar is one of the most beautiful guitar picking I’ve heard in my life. It brings the “blackbird” alive somehow. In the film though, they’ve taken out most the guitar and even a few notes. And it becomes a totally different song. And, knowing the meaning behind the song (the uprising of the black population of the U.S and their fight for equal rights) makes me feel there is no point for this song at all in the film. It is a bit of a filler, and it is a shame they did this to the song (it makes me understand why artists shy away from changing the arrangements too much when covering Beatles songs).
Fittingly, the film ends on All You Need is Love. Jude comes back to the U.S, and miraculously is allowed entry. Max is healing well from the stint in Vietnam and Lucy is more than happy to take Jude back.
Jude sings the song from a rooftop, obviously a hint to when The Beatles did so. The police comes to stop them and Lucy almost misses them. Almost.
It is a good ending, like all musicals should have. Just because you fall on your ass while fighting for your dreams, it doesn’t mean you should stop.
Despite the message of the song, I haven’t liked this song for years. I got sick of it pretty quickly after starting listening to The Beatles for some reason. Possibly because this song, like Hey Jude, is everywhere (although I never got sick of Hey Jude). But I like this version. The slow beginning of Jude singing almost acapella, nicely correlates to the beginning of the film. Then soon enough it becomes just like the Beatles did it. But I still like it.
Max is sent wounded to a hospital, and in the hospital bed, half mad he sings Happiness is a Warm Gun with a few copies of Salma Hayek (who specifically asked to be in the film).
This is not an easy song to sing, since it is sung all the way down *there* and then comes all the way up to *there*, and it is done splendidly. The arrangement is different enough for me to not actually think of it is the same song as the Beatles one. Both songs are very good, but the film version manages to be more sinister than the Beatles version – which is almost happy next to this one.
This is one of those soundtracks I can listen to all the time, and sometimes prefer over the Beatles (like Let it Be for example), but going over the film versions of the songs, reminded me that they sang 90% of the songs live for the film so they aren’t the same on the soundtrack as in the film. It’s not a bad thing, it makes me like the film even more because it shows that they actually can sing (most of the time).
Other songs in the film like Come Together, sung by Joe Cocker, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds and I am the Walrus, both sung by Bono are strong and weak points. It took me years to completely understand Come Together. It was so different somehow to all other Beatles songs I never really appreciated it. But Joe Cocker does a splendid job (just as I prefer his version of With a Little Help From My Friends). He makes it his, and it with his raspy voice it just works.
Bono’s version of Lucy and I am the Walrus on the other hand simply do not work at all. There are three songs of the soundtrack that have no plays on my iTunes, and Lucy is one of those (the other two are Flying and Blue Jay Way – two instrumental songs which are just boring). And I am the Walrus has one play. He just does not do a good job.
The film didn’t get great reviews all around, the director was criticized for taking the metaphors of the lyrics too literally. But, for a film that has to have some sort of coherence (even though sometimes it is a bit shady), it is not a bad thing to do. It sets the tone and it fits well. The actors in the film do a pretty good job at the singing. They have voices that fit their characters, but I’d say the weakest link is Evan Rachel Wood. Her voice is too normal, and she’s simply a girl who can sing, there is no special character in her voice. And going over the songs I chose, show I subconsciously chose only one song she sings and it’s a version of one of my favourite songs I don’t like at all. The film is carried well enough by Jim Sturgess, and Joe Anderson. And for people who are not professional singers (even though Jim was a singer in a bad back in the day), this is very convincingly done.
In the end, I guess the greatest appraisal is that Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and Olivia Harrison all enjoyed the film and liked it.