Sunday, October 14, 2007


The '60s are back -- or at least cinematic versions of them. Next month Todd Haynes' long-awaited Dylan film will arrive. According to a story in the NYTimes Magazine, Haynes wrote a one-page treatment to elicit Dylan's participation (i.e., to allow his music to be used in the film) that began with a quotation from Rimbaud: "je est un autre": "I is an other." Fitting I guess that the other big movie recreation of '60s rock gods, Julie Taymor's Across the Universe features Bono, doing a pretty good take-off on Wavy Gravy, singing "I am he / as you are he / as you are me / and we are all togther" -- in other words, what both movies seem to render is the degree to which the likes of Dylan and The Beatles have been appropriated by their fans as the stuff of collective myth. Dylan is us; we are The Beatles. I haven't seen the Dylan film (yet) but I did see Taymor's film earlier this month.

The immediate difference between the two films, of course, is that Haynes' is derived from some of the tropes of Dylan's life, Taymor's film uses The Beatles' songs as tropes for her characters' lives, so that the songs provide a frame of reference to whatever is happening on-screen. Some of it is cutesy clever (as in having a character named Prudence so the cast can sing "Dear Prudence" at her in a manner reminiscent of Milos Forman's film of Hair), and some of it is the kind of collage-like rendering of a distinct era and its distinctive personalities that Haynes went for in his earlier glam-rock extravaganza, Velvet Goldmine. So, in Universe, we get a Janis-character having an on-again / off-again relation with her guitarist who dresses like Jimi (but never really gets around to playing like him). We also get moments of dramatic rendering of some songs, as when Jude (hey) bursts in on the SDS-like group soon to become Weathermen-like and snarls "Revolution" at them -- even gesturing at a poster of Chairman Mao at the appropriate line. It's a bit too neat, sure, but seeing the film with a teen, born almost two decades after The Beatles called it quits, made it easy to see how the film aims to suggest (for those who missed it) "the myth" of the Fab Four -- not as the story (yawn) of their rise to fame, excellence, excess, and fall to mediocrity, but as the way in which their songs inspired the times or colored the times or simply put us all in the same tuneful place -- for a time.

The film is ultimately short on story and character development, long (too long) on MTV-like sequences for an ongoing array of great songs (unlike MTV). Taymor has invented many fun-to-watch sequences, echoing, borrowing, referencing all over the place -- as for instance a draft induction scene, to "I Want You," that manages to be disturbingly original while also reminding me of Pink Floyd's The Wall, Forman's Hair, and Ken Russell's film of The Who's Tommy. All those are implicit precursors of this film, though rarely is Taymor as bleak as Alan Parker's vision of Roger Waters' bleakest album, or as stagey musical as Hair. The Russell film is probably closest to the tone (and sometimes level of invention) here, but, not surprisingly, Townshend's rock opera gave that film more of an unusual story than this film boasts.

Boy (looking and sounding like young McCartney at his most loveable) meets girl (she has a good voice, unlike the blonde our Paul married, and does a nice cover of "If I Fell" that drops the cruel line: "she will cry when she learns we are two"), loses girl, gets girl. Boy also meets American dad who didn't know of his existence. Girl's brother drops out of Princeton and gets drafted. Janis-y Sadie ("you'll get yours yet") abandons band (Big Brother and the Holding Co., capiche?) but then reunites with bluesy black dude whose guitar gently weeps. Asian lesbian (Prudence) pines for Sadie and mopes but eventually learns to dig herself "on the bus" and "comes out" to play. And so on.

Most of the action is just an excuse for a song. As when the Learyish figure, representing East Coast acid pretensions, disses CA partyman Dr. Roberts (Bono), and the latter leaves our friends to tromp into a field where they are regaled by Tim Curry singing a zany, quasi-animated "Mr. Kite." The scene, following right after the trippy bus-ride to the tune of "Walrus," is de trop, but it lets Taymor use her puppet-figures, so it stays in. Elsewhere, the appearance of Joe Cocker in multiple get-ups doing a bluesy "Come Together" was unnecessary but vastly entertaining. First shot of him is as a subway musician doing those trademark air-guitar licks and the whole song continues on its magical way. I don't know who the musicians in the film are, but there's also a lovely instrumental guitar rendering of "A Day in the Life" that unfortunately isn't on the soundtrack CD.

All in all, a splendid time is guaranteed for all. It threw my thoughts back many years to the days of first hearing -- I mean really hearing -- those songs and the way we all sat around dreaming our own respective visuals that were probably, at least some of the time, very similar to each other and, perhaps, at least more or less, like what we see on the screen here. So that "the bus" was really The Beatles albums, and we all rode it for awhile. The band's breakup was a bummer that summer of '70, but Taymor's vision, even though it includes some "bad trip" Vietnam-stuff and The Weatherman bomb-making explosion, and some awfully ersatz peace-marching (the Pentagon march is placed out of proper sequence -- after MLK's death, rather than before as in real life, whatever that is), ends up sunnier than the actual story of The Beatles themselves because the rooftop concert, shut down by The Man à la the actual Apple rooftop bash in Let It Be, resuscitates when Jude plaintively leads the cast -- as now-benign cops look on -- in "All You Need is Love," his heartsong to woo Lucy back to him. Jude and Lucy -- la la how that life goes on.

No comments: