The Beatles and Dylan together again after 40 years?

Before I read this article I guess I didn’t really think about it.  Bob Dylan and The Beatles are back together again in a way.  I find it hard to believe that these two films will do well though.  Aren’t they kind of hard to digest?  A musical inspired by the music and times of the Fab Four, and a weird take on the many sides of Bob Dylan, who is played by everyone under the sun.  Although, I have to admit, Kate Blanchett looks simply stunning and really creepy as Bob Dylan. 

I just don’t see a mass audience for these two films.  I don’t think that A.) people will get these films and B.) aside from hardcore music fans, the general public will simply not care.  The movies are two weird for them.  Personally, I cannot wait to take-in both of these films.  I think these are the types of films that most fans of film and especially music fans would love to add to their personal DVD collections for repeated viewings.  I know that I want both.

In case you missed the trailers for both of these films, here you go.

Across the Universe – movie trailer

I’m Not Here – movie trailer

Here’s what we’ve read.

Question: How much freight should a ’60s musical icon have to carry? (Another question: How’d we get through that decade without using the word icon to refer to every pop star?) Forty years ago, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, and a lot of other talented young folks, wrote and performed terrific songs that opened the minds of people my age, expanded the pop-music vocabulary and generally made listeners feel smarter, cooler, better. And now we have two ambitious movies – Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe and Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There, both of which played this week at the Toronto Film Festival – that are carpeted with the music of the Fab Four and the man from Hibbing, Minnesota.


Who’s going to put down ten bucks to see skewed visions of what happened 40 years ago? What demographic could the movies appeal to? Not the adults who were young then: the ’60s kids are in their 50s and 60s now, and the only members of their age group who still go to movies are critics, like me, who are paid to. Nor do the films have much appeal for today’s young people. No one under 45 could even remember the ’60s, let alone have lived meaningfully through those days. Kids are nostalgic for, like, Kurt Cobain, and the Adam Sandler years of Saturday Night Live. The last thing they’d want to see is a reprocessing of their parents’ youth.

In the years just after World War II, Hollywood produced a slew of nostalgic movies using the sing-along music of 40 years before, because the songs summoned a more placid and innocent age. If contemporary filmmakers are digging up the songs of the ’60s, maybe it’s because they remind us of a bolder, more vibrant time than our own. Kids actually did stuff then. Those who didn’t go to war protested it. (The existence of a military draft helped.) They rebelled against their parents’ values, political views and choice of recreational drugs – from martinis to marijuana. They marched for civil rights, vandalized their universities, exiled themselves to Canada. Unlike today’s young people, they were idealistic, reckless, suicidal and interesting.

So maybe something is to be learned from movies about the ’60s. But my guess is the classroom will be empty.


I forget who said this – a movie producer, I think, appearing on a making-of promo video – but he characterized the quality of his film as “somewhere between Sergeant Pepper the album and Sergeant Pepper the movie.”

That’s a pretty big stretch, and it’s the area that Across the Universe spans. In its plot and performances, the movie is ordinary at best; at times during the film, you’ll be stranded in perplexity. But in the way it looks and sounds, it’s a tonic to two senses. No surprise here, since Taymor has lavished her extravagant theatrical imagination on Broadway musicals (The Lion King), operas (The Magic Flute at the Metropolitan Opera) and movies (a gory, oneiric Titus – Shakespeare as a splatter film – and the more pedestrian Frida). And the arranger-producers of the 33 songs include T Bone Burnett, who turned the old-timey country music of O Brother, Where Art Thou? into a platinum CD treasure.

Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, the Brit TV comedy-writing duo who both turned 70 this year, the movie constructs six characters in search of the ’60s Zeitgeist: the Liverpudlian Jude (Jim Sturgess), his American girlfriend Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), Lucy’s rebellious brother Max (Joe Anderson), the Janis Joplin-like Sadie (Dana Fuchs), the Jimi Hendrix-ish JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy) and the Asian, vaguely Yokonian, finally lesbian Prudence (T.V. Carpio). They come together in New York City and manage to get involved in or affected by most of the decade’s Big Movements: student unrest, race riots, Vietnam War resistance, political assassinations, the Black Panthers, bisexual experimentation, psychedelic drugs. Except for Laugh-In and the Mets’ World Series victory – oh, and Dylan – it’s pretty much all here.

What does the music of four English lads have to do with these very American eruptions? Nothing. They were back home, or in the studio, or off in India with the Maharishi. Pasting Beatles songs onto this storyline makes no more sense than scoring every Western set in the 1870s with the arias Verdi was composing at the time. At least the Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas Beatles show, Love, was set in Liverpool and found recognizably English equivalents for Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby’s cemetery. The NBC TV drama American Dreams, also set in the ’60s, wove a greater range of period music through its characters’ lives, as did American Graffiti and lots of other I-love-the-’60s jukebox movies.

Nor have the writers and Taymor injected much life into their characters. Jude loves Lucy, then gets jealous for spending too much time working in a radical students’ group. Sadie, the lead singer in a band where JoJo plays guitar, gets steamed when he upstages her with a Hendrix riff. Prudence loves JoJo unrequitedly. Max is always in a snit. Often the characters aren’t people at all so much as song cues (“Dear Prudence,” “Hey Jude”). It’s no wonder that Joe Roth, of the amusingly named Revolution Studios, got onto a tangle with Taymor by recutting the film. I don’t know if the movie in theaters is his version, hers or a compromise. Whoever is responsible, the narrative is all dull bustle.

But even those resistant to or unmoved by the story can appreciate Taymor’s settings of the songs, and the arrangements by T-Bone Burnett and other studio masters. The movie speeds up the 2/4 “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (for a zestful scene in a bowling alley) and slows down the ballad “If I Fell” (which Wood does very nicely), but the songs are flexible enough to still sound great. To invoke the Detroit riots, a black boy sings “Let It Be,” which, upon his death, is taken up by a gospel choir at his funeral. When Max goes to the draft center, soldiers in masks dance around the inductees to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy”). Who’s so heavy? The Statue of Liberty, which the recruits hoist above them and carry off to Vietnam. The a cappella “Because” submerges the kids in a psychedelic pool and ends with Max surfacing under the shadow of a U.S. helicopter in Vietnam. “Strawberry Fields” is another mind-blaster, with some gorgeous kaleidoscopic effects in the mode of ’60s master Pablo Ferro.

The movie has a few guest artistes: Bono as a Ken Kesey-style drug emancipator, and Eddie Izzard, with Blue Meanies as his backup group, doing a raffish “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” There’s also an excellent “Come Together” performed by Joe Cocker, who, astonishingly, has outlived both crimes against his body and most of his contemporaries. (He and Jerry Lee Lewis are the very improbable Indestructibles of rock ‘n roll.)

But star turns are less important here than the visual vibe that Taymor brings to the songs. Strip away the plot – which would be my solution to the wrangles over final cut – and Across the Universe has about an hour of creatively illustrated songs. You could almost start a cable channel based on this aesthetic. Just think: What if a channel like MTV had… music videos?


Someone who looks a lot like the mid-’60s Bob Dylan – except that he’s called Jude Quinn and is played by Cate Blanchett – is lounging in a London hotel room, reading what he thinks are exaggerated news reports of his behavior. “God,” he mutters, “I’m glad I’m not me.”

In I’m Not There, they’re not him: the six actors who impersonate some aspect of Dylan. The young, Minnesota Bob is played by a charming black kid, Marcus Carl Franklin, who gives every indication of being a blues-guitar prodigy. A 19-year-old Dylan, spouting aphorisms at a court hearing, is London stage actor Ben Whishaw. Blanchett plays prime-time Bob, the electrified folk-rock star who’s getting annoyed by fame. The ’70s, counterfeit-cowboy Dylan is Richard Gere. The movie leaps further into fancy by inventing Jake Rollins (Christian Bale), the Dylan character in a Hollywoodish ’60s biopic called Grain of Sand, and Robbie Clarke (Heath Ledger), the actor who plays Jack. Is everyone confused now?

This exhilarating experiment addresses the question at the root of any biography: Can anything authoritative be said about any person? And a deeper question of identity: Who the heck are we? Dylan, like anyone, may be largely unknown to himself, let alone to those who have listened to him, or followed his career, or written about his life. The movie begins by rendering this opacity graphically, as the letters of its title appear on the screen: “I’m he”… “I’m her” … “I’m here” … “I’m not here” … “I’m not there.” (You could also use these letters for the phrases “In her,” “In here,” “I’m other,” “I’m otter” and “I mother.”) This little game tells us that, since nobody can say for sure who or what Dylan is, an outsider – Haynes, say – has the right to make his subject a him or a her, here or there or none of the above. He does give the film the subtitle: “inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan.”

In the 1977 That Obscure Object of Desire, Luis Bu񵥬 famously cast two actresses to play one character (though it wasn’t to suggest a dual nature; it was because – who knows why, the man was a surrealist). Two years ago, in Palindromes, Todd Solondz had the lead character, a 12-year-old girl, played by eight actors (including a boy and two adults). Haynes’ use makes the most sense, at least the kind of sense a filmmaker can pitch at a backers’ meeting, since Dylan did have many lives, all of his own creation.

By the time he arrived in New York, at 19, he had already changed his surname, from Zimmerman to Dylan, after the poet Dylan Thomas; but it was still the gesture of a would-be old-fashioned movie star. He told his new friends that he’d run away from home as a kid, lived as a hobo, joined the circus, traveled to many states (all a fiction). He started his musical life as a singer of traditional ballads, then updated the folk-protest genre pioneered by his idol Woody Guthrie, then ditched that genre for songs of betrayal and alienation, then went electric and created folk rock. That’s four careers in four years: more public-persona reinventions than Madonna could manage, and surely enough for four actors to chew on.

Blanchett’s, of course, is the star turn. both because it’s an inspired stunt that she executes with aplomb (she’s a more convincing Dylan, no joke, than she was a Katharine Hepburn) and because she’s playing Dylan in 1965, the year he lost his old-folkie admirers on his way to rock stardom. With a fabulous frizz do, and a posture stooped by the burden of celebrity, s/he cavorts with the Beatles at a garden party, meets Allen Ginsberg (Arrested Development’s David Cross) on the road and – it was always a game with Dylan – deflects reporters’ questions on his political opinions. “Who cares what I think? I’m not the President. I’m not some shepherd. I’m just a songwriter.”

As he showed in Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Velvet Goldmine, Haynes is fascinated by the drudgery of pop fame – the gilded cages of hotel rooms, cars and private soir饳 in between gigs – and the drug use that is part of that routine. I’m Not There is more beguiled by this phase of Dylan’s career than I am, and gets repetitious and draggy here, like some long folk ballad in its seventh or eighth verse.

The challenge for any movie without a strong, conventional narrative is to find another way to keep the momentum and the audience’s interest from flagging. Haynes, like Taymor, is an avant-gardist with a showman’s flair, and his movie has as many styles borrowed from ’60s movies – from Richard Lester’s Beatles films, from D.A. Pennabaker’s cinema verite Dylan documentary, from Woodstock and European art films – as it has actors playing Dylan. This buffet of styles makes the movie consistently diverting, if not engrossing.

I’d enjoy sitting through a cut of I’m Not There if it were twice its current length, or half. At 135 mins. (about the same as Across the Universe), the film almost dares a viewer to choose favorite parts, and others for pruning. The section in which Gere as an older Bob hunts for his lost dog baffled and bored me; the Franklin and Bale parts I found quite moving; Blanchett is worth watching through her character’s triumphs, disasters and longueurs. Overall, I’m glad I was there.

Haynes does know how to end his film: with a minute-or-two view of the real Dylan at a concert, playing an extended vamp of “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the harmonica, focused on freeing the soul of his song through his craft. It’s a reminder that, whatever social movements the Beatles and Bob Dylan were drafted to represent, whatever iconic status they’ve been freighted with for the past 40 years, all they really made was music. And that was enough.

Source: Time


One Response

  1. I really enjoy your blog but I have to respectfully disagree. Clasic rock music is more popular now among younger kids than it ever was. In my opinion it’s due to the lack of “good” quality music being produced today. I have many friends who are big Beatles fans like myself who can’t WAIT for Across the Universe to come out. I’m not sure about the Dylan film because it’s been much less publicized from what I can tell so I can only really speak about Across the Universe. Anyone I’ve talked to who wants to see it is either A) A Beatles fan, B) a fan of the time period or C) a fan of musicals. I’m 19 and can’t even stand the anticipation of seeing this movie so there’s one younger person who will be going to see it for sure!

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