Director channels the Beatles to depict the tumult of the 1960s, writes Richard James Havis
It's seldom a good idea for artists to mess with Beatles songs - it's impossible to improve on perfection, so why try? But Across the Universe, a movie musical based around the works of the Fab Four, proves an exception to the rule.
Directed by Julie Taymor, it integrates the band's music and lyrics into a story about growing up in the social tumult of 1960s America, resulting in an intelligent film that entertains and makes a political point. It's not about the Beatles, but it's more true to their artistic spirit than faithful but cloying stage shows such as Lennon and Love.
Taymor is best known for her stage work The Lion King and the film Frida, her biopic about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. But Across the Universe has the boldness and imagination of her debut movie, the Gothic-tinged Shakespeare adaptation Titus. The film works because the story has nothing to do with the Beatles. Instead, Taymor has trawled through their musical catalogue and selected songs which, when strung together, tell a story.
The Beatles' oeuvre covers a wide range of characters, settings and emotions. Taymor and British scriptwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais - who once wrote TV's Dad's Army but more recently hit with Flushed Away - have simply adapted the songs to their own purposes, using them as the foundations for an original story. It sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, yet it works well.
Mr Kite, a character from the Sgt Peppers album, features in the storyline, but generally the Beatles' creations are kept within the songs. The story's a romance set in 1960s New York. Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a Liverpudlian sailor who turns up in America to find his dad, a former GI. He meets Max (Joe Anderson), a charming Ivy League student with a penchant for pranks, and quickly falls in love with his thoughtful sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). The innocence of the early 60s is quickly replaced by political activism and psychedelic experimentation, and the two lovers choose different paths in life. Taymor uses songs such as If I Fell, Revolution, and I am the Walrus to chronicle their feelings and illustrate the fast-changing times that they inhabit.
Taymor, who was born in 1952, says she adapted the script to fit her memories of the time. 'It has a reality to it that I experienced myself through my elder brother and sister - it's the life that I saw,' she says at the Rome Film festival, where Across the Universe was well received by the press.
'Lucy and Max, the brother and sister, are modelled slightly after my own older brother and sister. I'm Julia, the young girl who's watching. During that time I was a voyeur to what my parents were going through with teenagers and college students who were going through radical political developments - the draft, the hippies, the drugs. And so I was there, I didn't get immersed myself, but I watched it.'
The 1960s were a socially explosive time, and fashions and ideas shifted at a breakneck pace. The Beatles, for instance, went from writing teen-orientated songs such as I Wanna Hold Your Hand to masterpieces such as Hey Jude and A Day in the Life in about five years. In the US, hippies, Black Panthers, the civil rights movement, the space race and the Vietnam war all co-existed on the same timeline.
'It was actually a burden to try and represent this era,' says Taymor. 'It was very difficult to include everything. We tried to show all the musical shapes of the period.'
Taymor and her arranger Elliot Goldenthal illustrated these 'musical shapes' by arranging Beatles songs in different styles. The songs are sung by the cast over a variety of arrangements.
A Janis Joplin-themed version of Lennon's Why Don't We do it in the Road, and a tripped-out I am the Walrus - performed and sung by Bono - stand out. British comedian Eddie Izzard performs an incisive version of Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, while a reading of I Want You as a military recruiting song is imaginatively staged.
'Let it Be, for instance, worked very well in a gospel style,' says Taymor. 'We tried to use an array of styles in the arrangements of the original Beatles songs to give an impression of all the sounds of the 1960s.
'We didn't want it to become a jukebox musical, one of those where you just sit around waiting for the next song to come around. The songs in Across the Universe don't jump out of the story, they tell it. The narrative is driven by the songs - the lyrics tell the story. For instance, when Lucy sings the song Across the Universe and Jude sings the 'nothing's gonna change my world' line - well, that's when you know that politics is going to come between them. She's developed a wide political consciousness, but he doesn't want to be part of that scene,' she says.
'The Beatles have already achieved perfection - we don't need to tell anyone that with a film. That wasn't the point of Across the Universe. I treated the music and lyrics as more of an inspiration for the story and visuals. The power of the lyrics, of words, is inspiring. It allows you to be creative in cinema. That applies to the Beatles, that applies to Shakespeare.
'At the same time, working with great words makes sure that you do good work - you feel a responsibility to them. I used the Beatles lyrics as a chance to go back and investigate the 1960s. I wanted the music and the film to reflect more than the microcosm of a character's experience. I wanted it to reflect the macrocosm of the events that were happening in the world.'
The two surviving Beatles, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, weren't involved in the film. Taymor was happy with that, she says: 'If a real Beatle had popped up in the movie, it would have thrown the viewers out of the story.' But they both saw the finished film and gave it the thumbs up, she adds.
'Ringo liked it a lot. He especially liked Mr Kite. Then I watched it with Paul in London, alone in a screening room. It was terrifying - terrifying and joyful at the same time. I was terrified about what he would think. Then, sitting next to me, he started to sing along with All My Loving under his breath. I nearly died in my seat. I remember thinking, 'Even if he doesn't like it, I heard him sing'. But he did like it. I asked him, and he replied, 'What's not to like?''
Although the film is a panorama of 60s events, Taymor says she hopes it won't be viewed as a piece of nostalgia. People are different now, she says, but she hopes the vibrant anti-war sentiments expressed in the film will still strike a chord with viewers.
'We cast six young people who were same age as the characters they play,' she says. 'They were passionate about their parts. The war was going on in Iraq when we made this. When we shot the anti-Vietnam march, everyone felt that the march was really an anti-Iraq war march.'
Taymor says people are less militant now than during the 60s. 'During Vietnam, the draft was the thing that motivated people. So many young men were drafted into the army to go and fight in Vietnam. That got them out on the streets. You couldn't just blog your protest back then. If you wanted to protest, you had to take to the streets. That's a good thing. You get energy from mixing with people - there's a synergy that passes between people when they are in the same space. Young Americans today can't get that excitement from sitting in closed rooms.'
Except, perhaps, when they're watching Across the Universe.
Across the Universe opens on Thur