ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007) – Julie Taymor, what have you done?

Across

Call me overly reverent if you must. But the music of The Beatles means a great deal to several generations of listeners, and I am sad and angry to see it so thoroughly mangled in Across the Universe.

The movie’s bald literalness and its wounded-heart-on-its-sleeve demeanor are enough to make a Beatles fan retch. All of the characters are named after Beatles songs as a shorthand to bring in the music. For example, one girl is named Prudence, just so that her friends can coax her out of her room by singing, “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?”

The movie’s imagery makes countless allusions to Beatles films, videos, and icons (the Apple logo, John and Yoko in the buff, etc.). There’s even an eye-rolling moment where a character asks how a stranger got in the room, and the reply comes: “She came in through the bathroom window.”

I guess this is all meant to pat the loyal Beatles fan on the back for catching the references. But it only made me think of The Bee Gees’ 1978 movie massacre of the famed Beatles album Sgt. Pepper. It’s a movie that director Julie Taymor would have done well to study, because Universe falls into the earlier movie’s booby-traps (and with many of the same songs, yet).

I’ve not yet mentioned the movie’s characters, who barely exist anyway. There’s Jude (Jim Sturgess), a Liverpool dock worker who travels to New York and gets caught up in the ’60s revolution. The girl he falls for, though she doesn’t live in the sky with diamonds, is named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood, the snotty teenager from Thirteen). There’s Lucy’s wisecracking brother Max (Joe Anderson), whose smugness drains away once he gets his draft notice for the Vietnam War.

There are many more characters, but none of them makes any impact beyond the three minutes it takes them to sing a Beatles tune. Take Prudence as an example. We first see her as a loner cheerleader, longing for a football star from afar and singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The next we see of her, she’s hitchhiking to New York. Why? Just because she couldn’t get the football player? And Prudence’s adventures in New York and beyond are just as enigmatic. Every character in the movie plays this way.

It doesn’t help that the actors warbling classic tunes could barely pass an “American Idol” audition. Only three big-name celebs appear in the movie, with varied degrees of success. Actor Eddie Izzard talk-sings “Mr. Kite” like a stoner Rex Harrison. And Bono goes way over the top as a carbon copy of famed druggie Ken Kesey. Only blues singer Joe Cocker acquits himself admirably, with a funky version of “Come Together.”

The acid test for musicals is: If you took away the music, would you still care about the characters? If you took the music out of Across the Universe, the characters would evaporate.

SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND 50th-Anniversary Edition (2017) – The Beatles with subtext

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I was six years old when The Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was first released. My sister, who is 10 years older than me, was the ultimate Beatlemaniac up to that point, snapping up all of their records and screaming every time The Fab Four showed up on TV.

I listened to all of my sister’s Beatles albums and so became a Beatlemaniac by proxy. That’s quite ironic in that (a) I have no recollection of the first time I listened to Sgt. Pepper, and (b) that album was the beginning of the end of my sister’s Beatlemania. The Fabs had just gotten too psychedelic and far-out for her.

Having since bought and re-bought all of The Beatles’ albums — either because my original copies wore out, or they were issued on newer formats such as compact disc — I resisted buying the 50th-anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper for as long as I could, finally succumbing to the rave reviews this updated version has received. Still, I figured there was no way that an album I’d been listening to for 50 years (!) could ever surprise me again.

But having earwormed the album into my head for the past two days, I think I feel the same way that awed Beatles fans did when they first heard the album in the summer of 1967. It sounds fresher and more relevant than ever.

Surely, part of this is due to the breathtaking re-mixing done to the album by Giles Martin, son of Sir George Martin, the original producer of Pepper and nearly all of The Beatles’ other group albums. Like an aural archeologist, Martin fils has dug around in each of the album’s compositions and found sounds that you either never heard before or that sounded muddily buried in the background. More than ever, the album sounds like the ersatz bandstand concert that The Fabs always intended it to resemble.

But the real revelation is in the special edition’s bonus disc, “The Sgt. Pepper Sessions.” First, it includes beautifully rendered stereo versions of the Beatles hits “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It’s now Beatles legend that these two magnificent songs were intended to be placed on the original album, but EMI was so anxious for a long-awaited 45 RPM single that John and Paul made the sacrifice with these two masterworks.

But best of all is the second disc’s alternate takes on all of the album’s songs, most of which could easily stand on their own. In particular, the instrumentals on “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Penny Lane,” and “A Day in the Life” are lush and joyous. If the original album is solid as ever, these alternate versions are like beautiful flowers wriggling up through cracks in the concrete. (Proof of The Beatles’ inventiveness? Their outtakes alone sound better than a lot of rock groups’ final products.)

(Also of note is the second disc’s unveiling of “A Day in the Life’s” original ending. The song was to have ended with the Fabs endlessly humming the same note. On the original album, the hum was replaced by the now-famous, apocalyptic piano-note slam, but the hum has been resurrected here. The Beatles obviously made the right choice, but in retrospect, the hum doesn’t sound so bad either.)

Having listened to Sgt. Pepper for decades (and yet long after its heyday), I found myself just as judgmental about the original album as anyone. It didn’t seem as perfect as, say, Revolver, and it had at least a couple of tracks that were just too flower-powery for me. (Sorry, George and “Within You Without You.”)

Now, having heard the album in every ounce of its intended glory, I feel as love-stoned as any hippie from ‘67. If I don’t end out this week wearing tie-dyed shirts and flowers in my hair, it’ll be a miracle.

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