Saturday, January 26, 2008

Soundtrack Sunday: "Across the Universe" (2007) and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (1978)

For this week's Soundtrack Sunday, we're going to shake it up a little bit.

Hey, it's my blog. I can do what I want. And if I want to focus on two films – and two soundtracks – that's what I will do.

So what if one was one of the most staggering failures of the 1970s? And so what if the other has been hailed by The New York Times, among other publications, as one of the best films of 2007?

Separated by 29 years in terms of time, and a few million more in terms of quality, we will talk today about two films built entirely around Beatles songs – with nary a John, George, Paul and Ringo in sight.

And yes, we will compare and contrast. Which means we will focus on why one film failed so abominably and the other stands as one of the most visually audacious films of recent years (Do I sound like a film critic yet?)

Yet they do share some things in common – beyond the nine songs that are featured in both films.

Each, in its own way, was a product of its time. As in the marketing forces in play.

For Sgt. Pepper…, this was Robert Stigwood's attempt to hit another one out of the ballpark, less than a year after Saturday Night Fever returned the movie musical to the forefront. In fact, less than a month earlier, Stigwood's Grease became a box-office bonanza.

But this movie was just all wrong. In a sense, Stigwood was trying to recreate the magic of his own Tommy (1975) with Lennon and McCartney subbing for Pete Townshend; and Peter Frampton stepping in for Roger Daltrey. Rock stars. Rock music. A story that didn't make too much sense. What could go wrong?

A lot. Because though it's camp value is treasured by some, this movie is mess. Frampton and the Bee Gees just can't act. Steve Martin may never live down the fact that he made his movie debut as "wacky" Dr. Maxwell Edison. George Burns, who plays the mayor of Peppertown, had to supply narration because everyone was afraid no one would understand either Frampton or the Gibbs brothers because of their non-American accents. You listen to almost every song and you want to turn on the mute button because it destroys how much you liked it. (Unfortunately as a middle schooler who had not yet experienced the wonders of the 1967-69 Beatles, it represented my first exposure to several of these classic songs. Damn you, Hollywood!)

Everything is completely laughable.

Except for the fact that there were two cool songs in the movie: "Come Together" by Aerosmith (which, during the band's drugged out phase, played the film's villains, the Future Villains Band) and "Got to Get You Into My Life" by Earth Wind & Fire.

I'm posting the YouTube clips so you can get a small sense of how bad the movie is. But also appreciate the rays of light these bands let in during this awful mess.

I'm also posting the mp3 of the "Got To Get You Into My Life" which McCartney wrote for the Revolver album as a semi-Motown song. It's nice to see Earth Wind & Fire's Maurice White (a professed Beatle fan) do a little role reversal and perhaps even improve upon a song written by a rock artist.

Play "Got to Get You Into My Life" by Earth Wind & Fire

Luckily, "Come Together" allows us to segue into Across The Universe because it appears in both movies. And, in my mind, it is the biggest highlight of a film filled by lots of highlights. Because out of nowhere, one of the greatest interpreters of Beatles songs, Joe Cocker, begins serenading one of the film's main characters. And not only that, he plays three roles in the course of the song, which develops slowly into a full-blown production number full of the "accidental" urban choreography that has become one of Taymor's trademarks.

Play "Come Together" by Joe Cocker

Like "Sgt Pepper," this is another project that is a product of its time. The critical and commercial success of film musicals such as Chicago, Dreamgirls and Moulin Rouge have prompted studios to OK audacious projects such as this one. It has also given semi-free reins to innovative spirits such as Taymor, who made her first big splash by directing The Lion King on Broadway and went on to helm Frida (2002).

Thanks to Taymor, this film is never boring. And she makes plenty of unexpected choices along the way that keeps the film hopping. For example, "I Want You So Bad" is sung by an animated Uncle Sam getting a new army recruit. Or "Strawberry Fields Forever" gets performed as the movie's protagonist, Jude, pins the fruit onto canvas as a kind of performance art. I also like how she successfully mixes early Beatles songs – "Hold Me Tight," "If I Fell," to name a couple – with later ones.

The script about a bunch of young adults experiencing all the highs and lows of America during the 60s also seems to work in ways that Sgt. Pepper … doesn't. But then again, that's not entirely unexpected given that Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais wrote another great rock film: The Commitments (1991)

I also thought the cameos were surprisingly effective – chief among them a semi-disguised Bono, as the Ken Kesey stand-in Dr. Robert, who sings a rather credible "I Am The Walrus" at an acid-tinged psychedelic party.

Here's the clip:

Not everything works in the movie. I am not convinced that the closeted lesbian, Prudence (yes, almost all the characters are named after Beatles songs), was necessary to the plot. And the water ballet scenes are a little too precious.

But I heartily recommend that you rent or buy it when it comes out on DVD next month. You won't be disappointed.

Or bored.

Since this was a post about two movies, I thought I'd end it with a fun little table I devised comparing both movies.

Movie Across The Universe SPLHCB
Number of songs 32 28
Number of albums represented 9 6
Most represented album White Album (7 songs) Sgt. Pepper's and Abbey Road (12 each)
Number of pre-1967 songs 7 2
Number of songs from Revolver 0 1
Most surprising musical cameos Bono as Dr. Robert, Joe Cocker as Bum/Pimp/Hippie Aerosmith as FVB, Alice Cooper as the Sun King
Cameos by comedians Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite George Burns as Mr. Kite
Well-known actors Dylan Baker, Salma Hayek
Donald Pleasance, Steve Martin
Best Performance "Come Together" by Joe Cocker "Got to Get You Into My Life" by Earth Wind and Fire
Director Julie Taymor Michael Schultz
Resumé "Frida," "Titus" and Broadway's "Lion King" "Car Wash," "Disorderlies" and "Krush Groove"
Credibility claims Both surviving Beatles reportedly liked the movie Billy Preston performed "Get Back"; George Martin produced the soundtrack

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