This week I watched two DVDs that considered the same turbulent period, but from two wildly divergent vantage points.
First, the divider. Reviewers were almost totally at odds over Across the Universe, director Julie Taymor’s “homage” to The Beatles. Homage is in quotation marks because half the critics thought its liberties and excesses were trumped by its imagination, while the other half thought it was simply, cringingly, awful.
I doubt the 2-Disc Deluxe Edition that’s showing up next Tuesday will do anything to dispel the opposites. It’s obvious that Taymor – best known as the director of Broadway’s The Lion King — was aiming for the same sort of cinematic success as The Who’s Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall, but the nay-sayers pushed it toward 1978’s campy bomb, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band starring the Bee Gees.
The talented Taymor dodged that bullet, but couldn’t Matrix them all. The Beatles are a creative touchstone, all right, but not always for the best. Just as it’s more difficult to adapt a great book to film (The Kite Runner, Love in the Time of Cholera, etc.) than it is a pulpy one (Jaws, Psycho, The Godfather), it’s also extremely problematic to create a new musical from iconic music. And there’s hardly anything more iconic than The Beatles. The new, obviously far less talented, interpreters will always come out the short end.
To her credit, Taymor doesn’t try to overwhelm the music with vocal gymnastics (save for one exception) or distract audiences with stunt casting (save for the welcome inclusion of Bono and Joe Cocker in the supporting cast). But, apparently she can’t resist hurling buckets of creative energy all over the Frankenstein-stitched, wedged-in soundtrack. There are two kinds of directors: those who say “I” and those who say “you”: you’ll feel this, you’ll think this. Guess which one Taymor is.
There’s “you’s” aplenty in the special features, as Taymor quickly establishes that she doesn’t just have her heart on her sleeve, but most of her internal organs. In the five “making of” docs (Creating the Universe, Stars of Tomorrow, All About the Music, Moving Across the Universe, and FX on the Universe), she creates a touchy-feely, college-acting-class, heightened reality where every intriguing idea becomes a REVELATION and every mildly amusing thing becomes really, r-e-a-l-l-y FUNNNEEE.
Most of the cast buys into the pretentious freedom, but it’s also enlightening to see how actor Eddie Izzard (who plays Mr. Kite) reacts to her. As she goes on – gesticulating, discoursing, hitting theatrical postures — he looks at her as if she’s … well, I’ll let you judge if you check out the DVD. Its other extras are extended musical performances (including two alternate improv riffs from Mr. Kite), a short deleted scene that manages to sneak a few bars of And I Love Her into the mix, and an audio commentary with Taymor and soundtrack man Elliot Goldenthal that really separates the men from the chorus boys.
In any case, there’s visual and audio fun aplenty, so whether you decide this is a triumph or turkey (both of which it has been called by better people than me), it might be worth a glance.
Now the uniter. Sir Alan Parker is one of those directors who says “I”: I was trying to do this, I am proud of the project, etc. And whatever you may have thought of his movie version of Evita — which, like Across the Universe, was more like a bunch of music videos string together than a cohesive film – the rest of his filmography (Fame, Pink Floyd’s aforementioned The Wall, Birdy, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments, et al) marks him as one of the great underrated artists working today.
Just the fact that his first major film was the “kiddie musical” Bugsy Malone, while his second film was the powerful Midnight Express – which is breaking out as a 30th Anniversary edition DVD next week – marks him as pretty remarkable. The gritty, gruesome “based-on-a-true” tale of a young American brutalized in a Turkish prison holds up very well, thanks to Parker’s direction, then-newcomer Oliver Stone’s Oscar-winning, passionate, energized script, and the Oscar-nominated acting of Brad Davis and John Hurt.
The film’s secret weapons, however, as the DVD extras make clear, is its team of producers. In fact, this DVD is one of the most interesting and illuminating examinations of a producer’s role in the filmmaking process I’ve ever appreciated. In addition to an audio commentary by Parker, a photo gallery, and a great, accompanying, non-digital booklet with Parker’s drawings, photos, and memories, there’s three “making-of” featurettes (The Producers, The Production, and The Finished Film) which are actually one doc, split into a trio of occasionally repetitive pieces.
Although the same info, pics, and clips are sometimes shared by the three, they feature fascinating interviews with Parker, Stone, and Hurt, as well as producers Alan Marshall (Basic Instinct), David Puttnam (Chariots of Fire), and Peter Guber (Batman), the latter of which likens his job to that of a riverboat gambler. Their tales of keeping the studio at bay, and/or satisfied, as they rolled the dice on the, initially, universally disdained (except by them) effort are instructive in the extreme (as is the wildly divergent response, ranging from respect to racism accusations).
My final result is a deep appreciation of their guts, stamina, and smarts, without which this classic film never would’ve seen the light of day, nor have been there for me (and maybe you) as a total antidote to Across the Universe’s colorful, inventive narcissism.
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.