If you wanted to, you can pinpoint the day I started listening to music and looking at films. I mean really listening to music, obsessively, the same way I read books – trying to decode its mysteries and secrets, trying to work out why it makes me feel the way it does, trying to make sense of its sounds and melodies. Likewise with films, the way meaning and shots work together, how the disparate elements add to form the total (or not), how a film is made; how it all works.
July 2007, and I was meant to be writing an essay at school in study hall when I found out about Across The Universe, and… well, one thing led to another, and I found a trailer for it and fell in love with it – its colours, music, visuals, scope, diversity, sprawl. When it opened in Australia in November, I asked my two best friends if they’d like to see it with me, knowing they were huge Beatles fans, and so we went, and ‘everything changed’ that day, or so they say. From the film’s opening shot – a slow zoom in to Jude sitting on an empty windswept beach, as the waves fell upon the screen, intercut with archival images of protests and violence and revolutions; as the all frenetic agitated guitar of ‘Helter Skelter’ cut across it all, I remember thinking ‘so this is what it’s all about.’ The ‘it’ in question was the Beatles – their music, their lyrics, personas; their magic, their mystery, the phenomenon; their legacy. The film picked you up on “a wave of terrific Beatles songs” and catapulted you head-first through the decade of the Sixties – from the youthful innocence of the early days, to the experimentation and exuberance of the psychedelic era, to the violence and protests of
to its ambiguous end. Two hours later, as the final strains of ‘All You Need Is
Love’ faded over a girl standing on a rooftop, smiling amongst her tears, ‘Lucy
In The Sky With Diamonds’ played and the credits rolled, it was hard not to
sing along. There was one point, I think, when the three of us were singing
along, and we left the cinema grinning like maniacs, bouncing on the tide of
energy and music that was the film. Vietnam
‘Do you have any of the Beatles’ music?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I replied, immediately ashamed of the fact.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘We’re about to remedy that.’
So we went, the three of us, into the nearby record shop, where he promptly went straight to ‘B’ and began sorting through their albums, trying to work out which was the best one to start with. Half an hour later, we left the store whereupon he handed me the ‘Blue Album’ because “it has most of their good stuff on it, and it’s a good place to start.” In my room that night, I put the CDs on and I listened to the songs for the first time in godknowshowmanyyears, and it was like learning to walk all over again, like waking from a long sleep, like falling in love for the first time, like being aware of something bigger than one could possibly imagine to begin to fathom in one lifetime. I’m still trying to recapture that feeling of falling in love with a film so completely and utterly, something that hasn’t quite happened to the giddy headoverheels sense since.
Let me just clarify this: from birth, it seems, our consciousnesses are hardwired to the Beatles’ music, ingrained musically and lyrically from our earliest moments, whether we like it or not. It’s like in the film Sliding Doors: James (John Hannah) says that “everybody’s born knowing all the Beatles lyrics instinctively. They’re passed into the foetus subconsciously along with all the amniotic stuff. [In] fact, they should be called ‘The Foetals.’” Of course, growing up, I’d heard the Beatles – we sang ‘Octopus’s Garden’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’ in primary school, and the band had played ‘Hey Jude’ more than once – and I’d heard of their stuff, knew they were a band to be reckoned with, but that was about it. And I don’t really know why I hadn’t heard them earlier; I think it’s just one of those things that fell through the cracks of growing up.
Five years after seeing Across The Universe, I’m still trying to work out why the film – and hearing the Beatles’ music like that – had such a huge impact on me, why my mind went ‘boom!,’ why it is still my favourite film, ever. Even after writing my Honours thesis on the film, and watching it forty-odd times, I’m still not tired of it, nor am I any closer to an answer.
If people ask me ‘why the Beatles?,’ the glib – default – answer is ‘why not?’ While it seems like a throwaway, a riposte from which the comeback is nothing short of objective, it is, by and large, true. No one else before or since has done what the Beatles did to music and the popular consciousness in such a short space of time. David Bowie – the man who sold the world – came close, but he probably wouldn’t’ve done what he did if the Beatles hadn’t gone before him. You listen to a lot of the Beatles’ early music, and it’s pretty much variations on a theme; most of their early records – until about HELP! – were largely derivative of the rock’n’roll sound that came out of America in the Fifties, with Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and all the rest of them. You don’t have to be a genius to hear it, it’s plain and simple. Watch Sam Taylor Wood’s film about John Lennon – Nowhere Boy – and you’ll see them styling themselves in their image, trying to be like The King and emulate the music of the time. The story goes that it wasn’t unitl producer George Martin (often referred to as the ‘Fifth Beatle’ for his role in the crafting and manipulation, the pushing of the envelope of the Beatles’ sound, especially in the latter part of the Sixties, with Sgt Pepper’s, The Beatles, and Abbey Road) urged John, Paul, Ringo and George to write their own music instead of merely emulating an established theme, that the Beatles’ impact was truly felt, and the face – and sound – of popular music was changed forever. (To be fair, Beatlemania coincided with the ‘birth of the teenager,’ and to look at the sublime knockabout fun of their film A Hard Day’s Night now, seems something akin to a nightmare, all the screaming girls (and boys) mobbing them, following their every move, taste, inspiration and obsession.
But that’s all merely a side note, a prelude to the Beatles and I. The allure of the Beatles – as musicians, as a phenomenon – lies in the way they captured the zeitgeist of the decade and a generation. That their appeal has lasted fifty years is due to their ability to tap into the underlying essence of humanity, their ability to make music that works simultaneously on a personal and public scale. The 1960s were a decade of dramatic social, cultural and political change, yet for the early part of the decade, there was – at least on the surface – an “almost child-like innocence about the crazes and fashions” which was, characteristically, reflected in the “the words of the pop songs of the period.” As the years progressed, and the naivety and freedom of the early years gave way to the psychedelia and experimentation of the drug-fuelled ‘middle-Sixties,’ the dream of a seeming ‘new world’ began to crack and crumble. The Vietnam War developed, Kennedy’s assassination marked a turning point in the world’s psyche, and Cold War paranoia grew paramount, crippling; disillusionment and confusion set in, and the music reflected this paradigmatic shift. By the end of the decade – with the Seventies on their doorstep – the world was by no means safer or less paranoid, but there was at least a sense of rejuvenation, a kind of phoenixing. If you look at it, this four-stage model – Innocence, Dream, Disillusionment, and Redemption – mirrors the plot progression of Taymor’s Across The Universe (itself a conflagration of the decade of the Sixties into a two-year span of time in the life of its characters), as well as the progression of the Beatles’ own music, from their early MerseyBeat days to their Magical Mystery Tour period to their revolutionary Revolver and the groundbreaking The Beatles, and finally to their fragmentation and farewell, heard in Abbey Road and Let It Be.
Taymor, in talking about Across The Universe, furthers this notion, by “using the Beatles’ songs as the dialogue, monologues, and inner thoughts of the characters as if those lyrics came from the hearts and minds of the characters themselves. It is as if the music hadn't existed before it emanated from the mouths of the characters who sing it.” Film critic Antonio Monda agrees: “Although set in the sixties, the story speaks to our own times. From the very beginning, it is a hymn to passion, commitment, and the urge to experience life… Taymor does not merely adapt the Beatles’ songs to the story or the characters, [but rather shows] how these unforgettable songs distilled and interpreted a time of great unrest and change.” It’s this way of looking at their music – as both music and as musical signposts to events and feelings, as reactions – that gives them such power now. Some of their earlier songs might seem a bit too saccharine now, but the journey and the development of their style from those days of emulating American rock and roll tunes to taking on the world (Lennon, at one point, claimed they were “more popular than Jesus,” a remark which caused significant consternation and indignation throughout America) is both as incredible as it is inspiring to the generations who followed them.
Since that November afternoon in 2007, my fascination with the Beatles led me to the recent acquisition of all their albums (following their rerelease in 2009, with a little help from my friends), as well as their films (of which A Hard Day’s Night is the best, and Magical Mystery Tour the unforgiveable – unmentionable – worst). Sifting through it all – the books, their films, their music, their legacy – there are two photos that epitomize the Beatles. You’ve probably seen them a billion times before. One is them running down a laneway in London somewhere in their suits, Paul jumping off the footpath, Ringo looking behind him, George wearing a black shirt, the brick walls of the lane either side of them. It’s from A Hard Day’s Night, and it’s the four friends larking about, running around the place, laughing, having a ball; the other is from around the same time, and captures them jumping in the air on top of a hill, the buildings of London behind them, just them, almost-silhouettes against the largeness of the sky; it’s the image that would form the basis for perhaps the greatest evocation of their work – Cirque du Soleil’s “LOVE” – a show that boggles the mind whenever I see or hear anything from it and has done since I heard their remixing of ‘Get Back’ on the radio in 2006, the perfect opener to any concert, event or film. Ever. One of these days I’ll get around to seeing it in Vegas; until then, I’ll continue to listen to their music and watch their films, luxuriating in their irreplicable melodies and their infectious Britishness, the very essence of humanness that they exude through the simple act of making music.
At the end of the day, they were four lads from Liverpool taking on the world, having the time of their lives, and doing what they loved doing, doing what they did best. And I reckon they won.
Blumenthal, Eileen, Julie Taymor, and Antonio Monda. Julie Taymor, Playing with Fire: Theatre, Opera, Film. Third ed.
: Abrams, 2007.
p262, 218. New York
Booker, Christopher. The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.
Continuum Books, 2004. p676-677, fn New York
Simultaneously posted at http://thespellofwakinghours.tumblr.com/post/29683717869