The House That Jack Built
Ultimately, it’s more of an inconsistent cry into the void than the conversation starter it could have been.
“This is a movie that fires its songs like flowers at the way we live now,” wrote Roger Ebert in his euphoric four-star review of Julie Taymor’s visionary musical “Across the Universe” when the film was originally released in September 2007. With deeply poignant, often eye-popping artistry, Taymor weaves 33 Beatles songs into a 60s-set narrative about the romance between a British artist, Jude (Jim Sturgess), and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), the girl he meets during his time in America. Once Lucy’s brother, Max (Joe Anderson), is drafted into Vietnam, the lovers begin to find themselves pulled in different directions.
Though the film divided critics and audiences during its initial release, it has built a devoted fan base over the past decade with its endlessly inventive and troublingly timely renditions of Beatles classics. “Sounds like a concept that might be behind its time, but I believe in yesterday,” mused Ebert. If you’re the sort of fan who can’t help incorporating the Fab Four’s lyrics into everyday conversation, you are guaranteed to love this movie. Yet with Fathom Events’ upcoming rerelease of “Across the Universe” in theaters for three days only (July 29th, July 31st and August 1st), Taymor aims to reach a whole new generation of viewers who may not have the songs committed to memory, but can instantly connect with their heart.
Taymor, whose formidable list of achievements also include the phenomenally successful stage production of “The Lion King” (still running after its 1997 debut) and the Oscar-winning 2002 film “Frida,” spoke with RogerEbert.com about the “double experience” she wishes to give audiences, the value of practical effects and her musical’s newfound relevance during the Trump era.
When I saw “The Lion King” on Broadway 14 years ago, I went in thinking, ‘I’ve seen the movie a million times. How different could it be?’ I ended up sobbing during the opening “Circle of Life” number, watching these towering animals materialize seemingly out of thin air. How do you go about making the familiar new, whether it be in the case of a Disney film or Beatles songs?
It has to do with the medium. In the case of “The Lion King,” you are going from an animated film—a cartoon, really—to the stage. In the movie, you really feel Jeremy Irons in Scar. The voices are so dominant and make you feel the humanity of these characters, even though they still look like animals and their facial expressions are stretched. The idea of making them human animals—I call them “humanimals”—came from that understanding, that what was so essentially provocative and interesting in the movie was the humanity of those animals. The way to do it new is through the change in medium. Theatre allows you to show the magic—the strings and rods and the actor performing with a mask on his head—and then the audience forgets the technique and gets totally lost in the character. After twenty years, I’ve coined my own phrases, and I call this a “double experience,” where the audience experiences the art of performing as well as the story itself. The audience appreciates “The Lion King” as a theatrical experience, and that actually moves them more than the story. That is why you cried at the beginning of the show. The story hadn’t even begun yet. You were moved by the DNA of the earliest forms of theatre.
In the case of the songs in “Across the Universe,” when they were written by John, Paul, George and with a little help from Ringo, they had personal meaning for those creators. What “Strawberry Fields” is for John Lennon is for John Lennon. What “Strawberry Fields” is for many other people listening to it is dependent on their own imagination. It’s not linked to a literal experience or story or history. This is both good and bad for the film, since for many people, those songs have personal meaning because they heard them when they were falling in love or falling out of love or on their way to war. We took 33 songs and put them into a structure that reflected the growth of the Beatles, which goes from early hits such as “Hold Me Tight,” “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “All My Loving” to love ballads like “If I Fell,” before moving into the psychedelic realm of “I Am the Walrus” and “Helter Skelter.” When we explore the insanity of war, “Strawberry Fields” becomes a description of strawberry bombs in Vietnam. In the film, “I Want You” may be a song about the induction of Max into the army, but it’s also about unrequited love as well as wanting something so bad that it’s driving you mad. Look how much meaning can be derived from three lines of lyrics!
I used the songs to push forward the story, and as a result, it’s not a jukebox musical. Technically you could probably say that it is because the songs existed before the story, but they are used in a more traditional musical theatre style because they are the words of the thoughts and emotions of the characters. In a show like “Jersey Boys,” the songs have nothing to do with what is going on at the moment. With “Dreamgirls,” it’s more half and half. There are a lot of musicals about performers. [laughs] In “Across the Universe,” we have two characters, Sadie and Jo-Jo, who are performers. You could say that “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” is more of a performance song for Sadie, but when she sings “Helter Skelter,” it resonates with the era of Vietnam. You are reminded of the incredible rock 'n' roll bands that would come and play for soldiers in the swamps, as seen in “Apocalypse Now.” I cast Dana Fuchs as Sadie and Martin Luther as Jo-Jo because they were real singers. They were there to represent the other styles of music that the Beatles were inspired by—the black American music in particular—and they sort of channeled the voices of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, respectively. That way, we weren’t just representing four white mop heads.
What really makes the film feel like its own thing is when the songs are put in the mouths of women. Suddenly the lyrics have a completely different feeling. These four Beatles somehow were able to channel 15-year-old girls. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” would never be sung by 20-year-old men these days. They would sing “I Wanna Get Inside Your Pants” instead, while sprinkling the lyrics with lots of f—ks. It would be much more rough and direct. The Beatles understood the kind of yearning that a young teenage girl would have, and that is what made their fans scream in the aisles. That’s why we have Lucy sing so softly and so vulnerably, “If I fell in love you with you…” The lyrics actually make more sense in the mouth of a woman than they do in the mouth of a man. It has been fantastic to hear the Lennon/McCartney songs sung by so many different artists over the past 50 years. I felt very free about how I approached them because these aren’t cover versions, they are interpretations.
My composer, Elliot Goldenthal, did most of the arrangements—T Bone Burnett also contributed—and he purposely often left out the guitar riffs, the things that for many people who grew up with the Beatles, you hear them even if they aren’t there. He would refer to those riffs as the ghost in the room. In the bowling alley scene, “I’ve Just Seen a Face” had a tempo that evoked a bluegrass band from New Orleans. “Let it Be” was transformed into an enormous gospel number. Rhythm and orchestration change how a song feels, and that was critical when putting the soundtrack in service of the story. “Strawberry Fields” probably has the closest bearing relationship to the Beatles’ rendition, but most of the other songs are much different. We pay homage to the Joe Cocker version of “With a Little Help from My Friends,” which is sung by a bunch of college boys.
How important was it for you to record the songs live, while having the actors use their real singing voices?
Ninety percent of the songs were shot live. In fact, Evan Rachel Wood’s first day on the set was when she had to sing “If I Fell,” and she had no idea that we were recording live. She thought she was going to be lip-synching to her prerecorded track, and I said, “No, that’s just there in case something happens like too many airplanes overhead or you’re hoarse that day. We always have it as a safety.” The reason why that performance is so extraordinary is it is her first take, and it has that kind of reality that comes right out of dialogue. That was very important to me. I know that “Moulin Rouge!” boasted this same technique, but Baz Luhrmann learned it from me. [laughs] Baz said that his actors all wanted to do pre-records in the studio, and I told him, “No, no, you don’t need to do that. Get as much as you can live and then if there’s a lot of city noise, or the people can’t sing on the day, then you prerecord it.” For the “Let It Be” sequence, a church choir learned that gospel version, and they sang it in the actual church. It was quite astounding.
What is it like for you to watch the film now in the midst of the Trump era?
I haven’t seen it in a while, so I am going to go on the 29th. They’ll probably need to get another theater in New York for our group, because there are about 30 of us who worked on the film and want to see it together. It will be really thrilling to go back and see it, and I’m very proud that Sony wanted to do this. The intent to bring it out at this moment in time is twofold. It’s pretty much the tenth anniversary of the movie, as well as the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ Summer of Love in 1967. The summer that followed in 1968 was one of tremendous anguish, after Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. That time period mirrors what is happening in our country now. We may not be in a war on the ground in America, but we are in a divisive culture war. When you hear the song, “Revolution,” you go, “Well, yeah, we definitely need one.” The war cry of the young people out in the streets in the 1960s is shared by the teens from Parkland. They’ve realized that they have the power to win the hearts and minds of their fellow Americans, and they’ve motivated their peers to not just sit on their bums at home on the couch, tweeting about what they want to see changed. They’ve got to get out there and vote. The marches on Washington and in the streets really do help by showing you that you’re not alone and that people won’t sit back and let injustice happen.
This film came out right before the 2008 election, and we like to think that the young people who helped sway that election to a new voice like Obama’s came out to this movie. “Across the Universe” was released in the midst of the Iraq War and the sentiment in the country was similar. When we had all those young extras marching down Fifth Avenue towards Washington Square Park to protest the Vietnam War, the bystanders who saw them holding those signs thought that they were marching against the Iraq War. They asked us if they could keep the signs up after we left. The speech that the protest leader, Paco, gives at the march could’ve easily applied to what was happening when we were filming simply by changing the word “Vietnam” to “Iraq,” and you probably wouldn’t have to change many more words for it to reflect our present day. The racial divide, the war on immigrants, Roe v. Wade—everything that was previously fought for and won now has to be fought for again. To me, this movie is a harbinger of what’s to come and I wanted it to come out prior to the midterm elections. I wish it would come out right before the elections again, and maybe Sony will be inspired to do that if we get enough people to come. I’m an artist, so this is what I can do to make a difference, apart from marching myself.
Two of my favorite scenes achieve newfound resonance when viewed today: the wistful rendition of “I Wanna Hold You Hand” by the closeted girl, Prudence, made me think of the great work Evan Rachel Wood has done for bisexual visibility, while the boy who sings “Let it Be”—in the moments before he is killed during the Detroit Riots—reminded me of Trayvon Martin.
Prudence didn’t know that she was gay. She didn’t understand her feelings, just like a lot of people in the 60s. She comes to New York, tries to have a boyfriend, it doesn’t work out, and then she finds herself falling for Sadie. You are absolutely right about the “Let it Be” sequence. I didn’t even think about how the boy in the riot is similar to Trayvon Martin in that both were targeted by the police. “Detroit” came out last year, but it didn’t really show the whole story, and didn’t have many women in it either. It is amazing that that riot was triggered by a whole bunch of servicemen coming home from Vietnam, celebrating in a bar on a Sunday, which was then closed down by police. Our own heroes come back from a war that was hideous and unwarranted, only to die in their own country. We obviously didn’t get into those details in the film, but the sentiment was there.
The double funeral that occurs during the sequence is also critical, because Lucy lost her love and innocence too, and it puts her on a path. She will become a radical, and that’s what you would’ve seen if I got to make “Across the Universe 2.” We all wanted to do it, and I wish someone would pick it up and allow us to follow the next ten, twenty, thirty years of these people’s lives and their children’s lives. Lucy wouldn’t give up, she would be out there fighting. She would be a journalist in Paris following in the footsteps of Jane Fonda or Gloria Steinem or other powerful women. Maybe she and Jude ultimately won’t end up together. Who knows? Maybe he becomes Basquiat. There would be a time where they would try and make it together, but they have a different way of approaching life. From a very young age, you see that Lucy is that type of person who is destined to lead the cause. It is in her now.
What is the value of using practical effects—stop-motion, puppetry, shooting on location—in a CGI-saturated environment?
I’m always aiming for my work to have a tactile, handmade quality. “I Want You” is one of my favorite numbers in the picture, and Mark Friedberg, our genius production designer, made a whole stage of little palm trees for our young guys to step on as they walked in their underwear and combat boots while carrying a giant sculpture of the Statue of Liberty. The continuation of that landscape was a visual effect added in later, but the physical act of stepping on the trees is exactly what it looks like. One of the reasons that I felt the liberty to utilize techniques like that is because this is a musical. The boys are on a conveyer belt, like in a meat factory, and they are ultimately going to be wrapped in plastic and stamped with a 1-A as they are inducted into the army. For the sergeants who all have the same face, we didn’t duplicate their features via CGI, which would be so easy to do now. Each dancer wore a larger-than-life mask, and there is a theatricality to it that I find really moving. I’ve mixed together different visual tricks in pretty much all four of my major feature films—“Titus,” “Frida” and “The Tempest” being the others. That combination of effects is very exciting for an audience because it causes them to suspend their disbelief. Everything doesn’t have to be so “real” that you don’t doubt it. Even in “Titanic,” we knew that the boat wasn’t real, and when those sorts of effects attempt to be seamless, they often don’t work.
When Max has his physical, and you see various body parts in all those Joseph Cornell-style boxes, that is CGI. I kept working with my great visual effects designer Kyle Cooper to make sure it still looked like it was hand-made. On his first try, I thought it looked too much like a commercial. I told him to make the boxes more low-tech, with doors opening and closing. During the “Strawberry Fields” sequence, we literally took the war material we had shot and placed it on Lucy’s face with a super 8 projector. We also splashed paint onto plastic in front of the camera when Jude is madly painting the strawberry. I like a good healthy combination of CGI, animation and stop-motion, and in “Across the Universe,” it is typically reserved for our production numbers. Onstage, those numbers would’ve been defined by dance and projections, though there weren’t any projections in “The Lion King”—they are overly used, in my opinion—save for the stars on the big Mufasa mask, which was a dimensional projection. They were not on a flat screen. “Across the Universe” consists of 33 music videos woven together. Some of them are simple and don’t have any effects, such as when Jude sings, “Something in the Way She Moves.” You’re just looking at his drawings on the wall, and I once thought about animating them, but then decided that it was unnecessary. The song was so simple and beautiful, juxtaposing the stillness of Lucy sleeping on the couch with the drawings that Jude made of her dancing and moving. The idea of the song articulating his memory had more pathos and mood and emotion.
Jude’s belief that “it’s not what you do but the way that you do it” echoes Roger Ebert’s famous line, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” I feel that line also reflects your own approach to art.
I totally feel that. Anyone who sees “The Lion King” onstage could’ve viewed the movie 2,000 times, but it is in how we tell the story that adds a layer of meaning and gives you a new experience and new perspective. That is what an artist does when taking on something that seems familiar. It’s like cubism. A lot of reality TV puts a mirror directly in front of its subject’s head while utilizing a shaky camera, which drives me up a wall. That’s not reality, that’s just putting a mirror in front of something. You’re not getting at all of the layers within your subject. What we do as artists—as filmmakers and theatre directors and designers—is we put the mirror behind the head, on top of the head, inside the ear and inside the heart. We show our subject from all these different perspectives so that the audience is always seeing it with fresh eyes. If you see something with the same eyes over and over again, you take it for granted and you don’t see it anymore. You actually can’t see it. That’s why a movie like “Moonlight” was so successful. It allowed audiences to see something for the first time that they thought was familiar—drug dealers, kids in ghettos—until they saw it from the inside out.
I think that is what we do best when we’ve done our work. When “Across the Universe” works for people, it is because the songs connected with them in a way that they never even imagined. Not every group is like the Beatles where you have 200 songs to choose from, and the songs are of such diversity and have such a range of voices that they can be put into the mouth of a 64-year-old man or a 15-year-old girl. The Beatles didn’t have one voice, they have a voice that goes across the universe, and that is why the title of the film is very special to me. The picture has resonance not just in America and Liverpool and Vietnam, but in India and Mexico and Paris, where revolutions led by young people were also happening at the time. I’ve gone all over the world with “The Lion King” during the past two decades. I’ve been on every continent but Antarctica, and everybody tells me that their favorite movie of mine is “Across the Universe.” I am amazed at how powerful that movie is across cultures. The protest of the Vietnam War is mythic. We don’t have to update “Across the Universe” for it to have relevance. It’s like how Shakespeare translates to any time period. The 60s are extremely emblematic of a culture that has so much idealism and so much darkness simultaneously. Right now in America, the ugliest, most rock-bottom aspects of humanity are out there, and if we are going to do anything about our survival, the most beautiful elements of humanity will come out to combat them. We don’t know who will win, but good usually triumphs after a lot of loss and suffering has occurred.
In many ways, “Across the Universe” is the most personal film I’ve made. I was a Beatles fan growing up, but the film is more reflective of my older brother and sister’s experience. Our parents weren’t quite like the ones in the movie, but I was the little blonde girl watching my family deal with this incredible time. My brother enlisted real young. He was a dropout and a musician and a cab driver. He thought he was going to go box and play cards, but then he enlisted in 1960 or 61, and they wouldn’t take him. How lucky he was that this all happened before the draft. My sister was a radical, and without going into too much, was involved with people who were dropping Molotov cocktails. So this film has enormous meaning for me personally. I really want it to reach the young kids who’ve never heard the Beatles because they’ll connect to the story. Beatles music is forever contemporary, forever amazing, and it makes the film a cross-generational experience. I really hope entire families will go out and see it together. That’s my dream.
Fathom Events and Sony Pictures will present “Across the Universe” in theaters for three days only: Sunday, July 29th; Tuesday, July 31st; and Wednesday, August 1st. For tickets, showtimes and theater locations, click here.
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