Across the Universe
Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, and Julie Taymor, 2007

This is a musical done entirely with covers of Beatles songs. I didn't like it very much. Why not?

It's not that I don't like the Beatles. I love the Beatles. In fact, my senior year of high school I was freakin' obsessive about them and didn't really listen to anything else. So is it a purism thing? Like, I can't stand to hear these beloved classics performed by other singers? Nah, it's not that either; I certainly had no objection to the way Pleasantville concludes with a Fiona Apple cover of the song this movie is named after, for instance. I thought about this for a bit, and I think I figured it out.

See, as my "musical acts of note" page indicates, I wouldn't actually give any Beatles album more than about a 5 on my scale even though I'd give their body of work as a whole a 9. I find the whole much greater than the sum of its parts. In this respect, I like the Beatles in much the same way that I like Jock Sturges. Sure, there are individual photos of Sturges's that I like in and of themselves, but what I really love is the narrative they create as the same subjects get photographed over a span of years, changing and growing from one summer to the next. Similarly, there are individual Beatles songs that I love. "A Day in the Life" is likely to get bumped up to #2 the next time I update my list of favorite songs, for instance. But just as powerful as the song itself is the narrative behind it — that this is what a boy band, playing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to hordes of screaming 12-year-old girls, evolved into over the course of three short years. From "Love Me Do" to "Yesterday" to "Strawberry Fields Forever" to "Revolution 9" — what else do you really need to say about the '60s?

Which means that Across the Universe strikes me as misguided in a couple of ways. First, there's the idea of pairing up Beatles songs with a cut-rate semiotician's idea of the '60s in the first place. The Beatles oeuvre is already a metaphor for the '60s; adding race riots and burnt draft notices and hippie buses is about as good an idea as intercutting between The Crucible and the McCarthy hearings. Pattern 18: don't speak the subtext! Second, if you do decide to go through with the idea, the least you can do is get the sequence right. Jumping ahead to Abbey Road and then dipping back to A Hard Day's Night is not hugely different from when Ingrid Burrington's teacher decided to score a psychedelic freak-out with "Till There Was You" on the theory that the Beatles were psychedelic. History doesn't work like an I-Pod Shuffle.

And also, yeah, it's one thing to use the Beatles as the soundtrack for a history of the '60s, but to use these classic songs to score your dopey characters' banal story is only slightly better than using them in a sneaker commercial.

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