February marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ historic 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and their first tour of America. This watershed moment in American popular culture is being celebrated worldwide, and the Retro Set is delighted to be in on the festivities with a week-long retrospective of The Beatles’ influence on celluloid.
The first thing we see is a strike during bowling. A good thing. For all of its inconsistencies and flaws, Julie Taymor’s wild and eccentric Across the Universe is pretty great. It sounds deeply corny when you try it as an elevator pitch: all these people with names from the different Beatles songs (Jude, Lucy, Maxwell, Sadie, etc.) live out the 1960s and the ensuing counterculture and the politics that go with it. And they sing. “The story is told through the music of the Beatles! And it’s a love story,” someone shouts. It sounds wildly saccharine, in a bad way. But the exuberance in the film and Taymor’s natural eye for flair make it one of the most interesting films to utilize how we know the Beatles. And “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is the film’s best scene.
“I’ve Just Seen a Face” was originally released in 1965, in the UK on Help! And in the US on Rubber Soul. It is easily described as that wondrous feeling when one falls for someone at first sight, or after a date, or after a kiss. And although much credit must be given to the original Fab Four for writing that song, the original recording never had the heft that it needed. Instead of the “so happy your heart could burst” feeling that the track required, it feels a little like walking slightly more quickly than one normally does.
In 2007, Julie Taymor used the song early in Across the Universe, and that on track encompasses the joy of the entire film. At a bowling alley, Jude (Jim Sturgess) realizes his attraction to his new best friend’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Elliot Goldenthal quickens the tempo and gives it a rockin’ swagger that the track needs, while Taymor appropriates the song to give it an appeal of dizzying heights. Goldenthal eliminates the acoustic sound of the track and instead makes it electric, like the rushing heartbeat of infatuation. Taymor dims the lights and transforms the bowling alley into its own little world.
Jude senses a certain amount of mutual attraction, and what else does one do when one realizes such a thing? They smirk, they walk with confidence with their hands in pocket, and they open their heart. Jim Sturgess nails the flirtatiousness, while Wood handles the coy knowingness well. Sturgess, with his stubble and almost Liverpoolian accent (for the sake of the film), make me assume that this is why people found the Beatles sexy back when they were at the height of their fame. Sturgess brings a mysteriousness to the role, not so much a tortured genius (though that’s touched upon later in the film), but someone you would like to get to know better. It’s in the smirk and the mussed up hair.
As the camera pans 180 degrees around Sturgess singing the first lines of the song, it’s all in the facial expression: confidence, sex appeal, fantasy, and goofiness. It’s as if the characteristics of all four Beatles melted and Sturgess just drank them up. The sly, wily nature works in his favor, making the film ever more appealing, even if just for him.
Taymor’s contributions certainly kick into the song when the lights go down and it becomes a bit of a fever dream. Perfectly calculated to the music and to the story, the sequence shows the various kids at the bowling alley messing around the bowling alley. The multicolored fantasy is like a primer of what’s to come later in the film (such as in the Bono sung “I Am the Walrus”), but it hardly overwhelms. It plays perfectly into the arrangement of the track, bordering on kaleidoscopic enthusiasm. The beautiful moving silhouettes, the outstandingly saturated lighting, the smiles on the face of each player. Everything seems to slide into place.
Although I certainly wish the film were as neat and un-tidy as this sequence, the imperfections make it fun to watch. At times, I’m not sure whether I want less plot and more abstract, post-modern music videos or less music and more plot. No matter, Across the Universe is a risky juggernaut that, for the most part, pays off. Playing with some of the most well-known music ever made, it distills its dun and desire into something fun and palatable. It’s that exuberance in every song that brings life to the film. It makes us remember why we love the music. There are few musical sequences, though, that reach such a high as “I’ve Just Seen a Face”. As Sturgess croons that he’s falling, we realize, so early into the film, that so are we: