A hallmark of Rock and Roll music, The Beatles will most definitely be remembered in the history of 20th century music, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will likely be remembered as their magnum opus (I prefer the White Album myself, or Revolver, but that’s just me.) While many of their contemporaries are fading into nostalgia, the Beatles’ music has retained a timeless feel that has them rediscovered by generation after generation, either through video games, or through movies, such as Across the Universe.
I didn’t much care for Across the Universe when it first came out. I appreciate Julie Taymor as a director, her version of Titus was great, for example. But the movie was ham-handed about its anti-war agenda, about 45 minutes too long, and tried too hard to use a lot of the Dada-esque John songs and not enough of the more straightforward Paul songs. I actually like all the songs they picked more, but they weren’t suited to constructing a cogent narrative. Which led to numbers like Eddie Izard singing “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in a circus.
This is the moment where me and this movie stopped agreeing on what a musical based on the Beatles should be about (if you want an exact moment in this video, it was probably around 45 seconds, where I thought to myself “okay, now stuff’s just happening. Thank you, movie.”) I was not pleased with this movie, to put it lightly.
Then I watched Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Released in 1978, and produced by Robert Stigwood (the guy who produced Grease and Saturday Night Fever, so he at least has some good sense about how music can be used in a movie,) the titular band is made up of Peter Frampton and the Bee-Gees, is based loosely on the album and Abbey Road, and contains almost no non-singing dialogue except on the part of our narrator, played by George Burns, who tries to help piece together a plot about the Band being manipulated by music executive Mr. Mustard (who, if you are not aware, is not a very nice guy at all.) This is a blessing since we don’t have to deal with as much “real” acting from the Bee-Gees and Frampton.
They aren’t the only musicians in the movie: Alice Cooper plays Father Sun (he sings a rather bizarre version of “Because;”) Earth Wind and Fire play themselves (they do a good cover of “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and might be one of the few redeeming features of the film, besides a performance I’ll mention below;) and Aerosmith are the Future Villain Band (foreshadowing their career-that-wouldn’t-die of the mid-90’s and stretched on to today, they perform “Come Together.”)
The movie is punctuated heavily by scenes randomly sped-up (reminiscent of A Hard Day’s Night,) which is a a cute technique, along with the white superimposed inter-titles, but the filmmaker manages to grab it by the throat and drag it into the ground so often that you can’t help but wonder if they were trying to intentionally make an awful movie.
There’s a point where reasoning breaks down for me. Where any attempt to find anything redeeming becomes an increasingly daunting and depressing challenge bordering on the absurd. I would compare finding the bad in this movie as to finding a needle in a haystack, but that’s not a fair comparison. Trying to find the bad in this movie is like trying to find the hay in a haystack. And not just any hay, but one particular piece, and it’s lost in the sea of the same hay. If the bad were like a needle (or needles) in a haystack, at least then you could find something differentiated and go “Oh, here is your problem. This.” But this entire movie is the movie’s problem.
Steve Martin, by the way, is in this movie. Steve Martin. Because when I think of The Beatles, the first thing that comes to my mind is Steve Martin.
I have to admit this is pretty funny. Perhaps if this was the only thing the movie was then I would not be as upset about it. And then he’s gone. You cry out for Steve Martin to come back, but he’s gone, and he’s left you with an awful, awful, movie.
The rest of the movie has the same frantic nonsensical construction, but its mostly taking itself serious to levels that seem to border on the absurd. But there is no scene that doesn’t in some way awkwardly crumble, look poorly constructed, or just messy. George Burns at times looks amazed he is even in this movie.
The movie ends with a bunch of celebrities singing the reprise of the title track and posing in a manner reminiscent of the album cover. These include such 70’s luminaries as Heart, Leif Garret, Carol Channing, Bonnie Raitt, Minnie Ripperton, Tina Turner, Hank Williams Jr., Curtis Mayfield, and, of course, Sha-Na-Na. Wolfman Jack is there too, perhaps imagining this is the next American Graffiti. Unfortunately for the Wolfman, it is not.
This movie was apparently so bad that it bankrupted Robert Stigwood’s production company, and the Bee-Gee’s eventually sued him over royalties related to it. If I were them I’d suddenly be worried about the money running out too.
This movie is not redeemable, even for its camp value. It’s not “awesomely bad” or “so bad its good,” it’s just plain bad. I thought I knew what an awful movie was before seeing this movie, but it actually transcends narrative, filmmaking, and manages to defile the canon of one of the greatest rock bands of all time. I would not recommend it to anyone, to watch under any circumstances, even for a morbid curiosity to see how bad it is (which is why I watched it.) Do not watch this movie. I’ll repeat that. If you value your sanity, or think fondly of the Beatles in any way, do yourself a favor and not watch this movie. If you want to see a Beatles musical, see Across the Universe. Or wait for somebody to make a really good one.
It’s become increasingly obvious the more I think about it that, if only to avoid the possibility of having to endure a third Beatles music within the next 30 years, to create some kind of guidelines for future generations, taking on the problems of the problems of the 1978 and 2008 Beatles musicals. So take heed, filmmakers of tomorrow:
1) Try to draw more focus on the earlier pre-Sgt Pepper’s Beatles, and, if you do use the more psychedelic Beatles songs, focus more on Paul’s stuff (“Here Comes the Sun” would be fine too, “Octopus’ Garden” likely wouldn’t.) John’s songs aren’t very complimentary to narrative, and you end up with bizarre interludes. Under no circumstances is “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” to be used. Ever. “Strawberry Fields Forever” is a borderline case, because it isn’t as jarringly non-narrative as John’s other songs, but in both Across the Universe and Sgt. Pepper’s it gets used as an utterly dreadful ballad. But I think it could work.
2) Thematic diversity. Both films have a problem with taking a single issue and more or less defining the entire movie around it. Sgt. Pepper’s is about the corrupting nature of fame and power, while Across the Universe is an anti-war movie. There needs to be some variation, maybe a strong subplot not tied into that theme, or else try to create some more conflict with the theme (both of the above things are presented as bad, understandably, but that removes 99% of the conflict from the story. There needs to be disagreement and synthesis of ideas.) Otherwise it just becomes an overpowering series of intertwined Beatles songs.
3) Self-referential comments need to be low, if not to a minimum. The Beatles are such an integral part of pop culture that it’s easy to put references to characters or lines into the script. But it’s also really easy to go overboard with it too, because there’s so many iconic lines and characters. Across the Universe goes especially overboard with this, with every major character being named after some Beatles song or another. It’s ok to have a few characters that aren’t named after the songs, or to keep spouting random bits of Beatles lore. This makes the movie actually about something other than the songs, which, as important as they are to a musical, are not the entirety of the film.
4) Not every song needs to be on the nose about what it’s about, but at the same time, don’t attribute completely new meaning to a song. The first problem is “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” always been used as a part of a circus number (Sgt. Pepper’s including two guys in a rollerskating horse costume as Henry the Horse. I wish I were making that up.)
The best example of the opposite problem I can think of is “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” which in both films gets used in drastically different ways. In Sgt. Pepper’s it’s about the music people lusting after the band and the dangers of fame. In Across the Universe…
Yeah, heavy-handed much?
5) Actually, maybe just don’t make a musical about the Beatles, especially “based on the music of…” and save everybody involved a lot of trouble.