The trailer for Across the Universe is one of the most captivating I’ve seen in a long time. During those two minutes, in which “Girl” is played in the background—you know “Girl”, right?: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story / All about the girl who came to stay?”—during those two minutes, I was not only convinced that I would love the movie, but I was convinced that it would make me a better person, that it would forever change my life.
Sadly, Across the Universe didn’t even change my afternoon. Overall, it’s an enjoyable film—but it could’ve been—it should’ve been—so much more.
The plot is cliché and often feels like it’s been cut-and-pasted from Forest Gump. But I could have lived with that. And the much-talked-about visual effects often feel amateurish, though I did like it when the strawberries—from “Strawberry Fields”—start bursting into blood. And the drug sequence is boring, reminding me of the hallucination from Disney’s Dumbo. And the “funny parts” really aren’t that funny: the scene in which everyone gets stoned and goes barhopping to the tune of “With a Little Help from My Friends” is reminiscent of a Happy Days’ rerun. But I could have lived with all that, too.
The problem with the film is that much of its music falls flat. Needless to say, the Beatles are amazing. Just as Alfred North Whitehead said that philosophy began with Plato and that everything since has been a mere footnote, in the same way we could say that rock’n’roll, good rock’n’roll, began with the Beatles (the post-1964 Beatles, of course) and that everything since has in some sense merely been a response to them.
Not only is Beatles’ music timeless, but Beatles’ remakes are sometimes better than the originals: the I Am Sam soundtrack proves this: Sara McLachlan’s “Blackbird,” Eddie Vedder’s “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” Aimee Mann and Michael Penn’s “Two Of Us”—there’s just so many great songs here. Many of the remakes in Across the Universe, however, are mediocre. Evan Rachel Wood, though an amazing actress, is not an exceptional vocalist. And some of the movie’s tunes—Bono’s “I Am the Walrus” comes to mind—are just too weird to enjoy.
One thing the movie does well is make us realize that many Beatles’ tunes aren’t as simple and happy as we’ve always thought. As Roger Ebert writes, “When Prudence sings ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’…I realized how wrong I was to ever think that was a happy song. It’s not happy if it’s a hand you are never, never, never going to hold.”
That said, however, there is a hope and buoyancy to the original music that these remakes miss. The beauty of the Beatles lay in their ability to use their voices and instruments to elevate this world; they didn’t imitate reality but urged reality to imitate them. The versions in this film, by contrast, are echoes of the human soul: not angels singing down to men, but a bunch of sad sacks, all who studied Schopenhauer in college no doubt, sitting around a bar, sharing stories from their own dreary lives.
Maybe it’s my fault; maybe my expectations were too high. We can’t hope for two Moulin Rouges in the same decade, can we? In any case, Across the Universe, despite its flaws, is often beautiful and touching and is probably better than anything else playing in theaters right now. If I had to assign it a letter grade, I’d give it a solid B, but with the same admonishment that a teacher gives a prodigy who failed to exert much effort: “What can I say, this is good, very good, but from you, from you, I expected so much more."