It would be easy to be all grown-up about Across the Universe, Julie Taymor's new film, which fashions an unlikely musical out of Beatles' songs. It would be easy to sit aloof at a critical distance and point to the hackneyed screenplay, the juvenile in-jokes, the incoherent plot and the unevenness of the music; easy to dismiss this film as a silly mish-mash of old pop tropes, ludicrous idealism and adolescent sensibility.
I hope I never get that old.
The truth is that Across the Universe is everything the Beatles were - silly, sentimental, hilarious, quirky, psychedelic, sexy, intense, innocent, idealistic, chaotic and gorgeously, heartbreakingly beautiful; a swirling kaleidoscope of a film shot through with snatches of pure poetry, that captures as well as anything ever could the joy, the goofiness, the sheer fucking exuberance of that most transcendent, most essential of rock bands. Even calling it a film is doing it an injustice - this is not a musical, nor (god forbid) a romantic comedy - it is a magical mystery tour, a collage of exquisite moments, a sequence of dreams turned into music videos, one long, freaky acid trip.
What this movie understands, I think, is that the Beatles were never about the lyrics (which were frequently trite) or the tunes (which were often cheesy), any more than the sixties (or what we now think of as 'the sixties') were really about sex and drugs and protest marches. All of that happened, existed, but underneath it all was the awareness that you didn't need some complicated philosophy or self-important achievement to be happy or alive - all you needed was the courage to go out there and live with all your heart, to give yourself to any and every cause and idea and person that moved you and not be afraid to feel or admit that you were moved; all you needed was to revel in the unadulterated exhilaration of being alive. The Beatles understood, as Taymor seems too, that art, like love, doesn't come from surrounding yourself in cleverness, protecting yourself with irony and cynicism, it comes from a willingness to risk being ridiculous. The Beatles were never afraid of making fools of themselves - on the contrary, they reveled in it - and it was this that gave them and their music a kind of irresistible honesty. Whatever else they were, the Beatles were always genuine, always real, and it was this unselfconscious spontaneity of theirs that put them beyond all criticism. It is a quality that Across the Universe shares. It's terrible, but it's also brilliant.
Czeslaw Milosz, in his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (collected as The Witness of Poetry ) speaks of "the poet as a person who differs from others in that his childhood does not end and who preserves in himself something of the child throughout his life". If that is true, then John, Paul, George and Ringo have to rank among the greatest poets of the last century. If we continue to treasure the Beatles today, it is because they represent a kind of innocence, a kind of beautiful naivety that we, in our jaded, sophisticated, post-ironic, desperately self-conscious world need to cling to. That is why it doesn't matter that the plot of Across the Universe is corny, that the characters look like they've stepped out of a Benetton catalog and that at least some of the scenes will make you cringe. Nobody is trying to pretend that the 60's made sense, least of all this film, that makes it abundantly clear that the 'Revolution' such as it was, was a revolution of children. Of course they were being impractical. Of course there are things that can't be done, that can't be sung, that can't be made or saved - love is not all you need. But what matters here is the earnestness, the enthusiasm; what matters is that all of us, either as children, or, in some cases, as young people in the 60's, sincerely and in good faith believed in these things. It is that sense of possibility that the Beatles, and this movie, celebrate. e e cummings writes: "Because my father lived his soul / Love is the whole and more than all". Replace 'my father' with 'The Beatles' and you have it, precisely.
To be fair, the movie does do a good job of demonstrating the sheer range of the Beatles' music - taking it from corny pop songs to tender ballads to gospel to screaming, head-banging rock. Watch out for renditions of Helter Skelter, Why Don't We Do It In The Road, Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Come Together and, perhaps most memorably, Strawberry Fields, not to mention the sight of Bono singing I am the Walrus, or the scene when an impromptu band plays Don't Let Me Down at top volume from a Manhattan rooftop, which, of course, is how it's meant to be played (Oh! and IMDB confirms it - that is Joe Cocker playing a busker singing Come Together. Yaay!). But the real reason the film works, I think, is because for those of us who grew up listening to the Beatles, their songs constitute a language all their own, a special secret mother tongue whose every word sounds familiar, whose every line comes remembered from the heart. So when the characters in the film suddenly, often bizarrely, break into song, it doesn't strike us as odd or peculiar, it strikes us as natural as if they had suddenly switched to French or Hindi, and we understand exactly what they mean. If for no other reason, you should watch this film because, while there will always be other films in French and Italian and Japanese, this may be your only chance (outside of special showings of A Hard Day's Night et al) to see a film in Beatle-se.
P.S. I should say, though, that this is a film strictly for serious Beatles fans. If you've never heard the Beatles (you miserable loser!) or don't much care for them (die! die now!) then you are likely to find this film entirely inexplicable, and should probably stay away.
 Space Bar: Now there's my Bible!