The Beatles were a worldwide phenomenon who inspired many -from the “flower children” to the Manson Family. Their quick popularity brought “Beatlemania” and the British Invasion into America. While their music was catchy and popular, it often reflected the time and events, mostly political, happening around the world. Across the Universe, directed by Julie Taymor and released in 2007, paints a picture of the period in which The Beatles’ songs made their prevalence and mirrors them with important events of the time. Across the Universe features thirty-four original Beatles’ compositions and utilizes them to drive the narrative of the movie. The music in Across the Universe is mainly diegetic music with the occasional extra-diegetic stylings. This movie smoothly translates through all of the different musical stages The Beatles went through, from cheesy love songs to acid trips, this movie paints them all. In this paper, I am going to analyze many songs portrayed in Across the Universe and explore their historical impact and importance for the narrative.
Across the Universe is a 1960s fictional love story set in a time of great cultural significance of free expression and a fight for societal freedom. It also shows the immense amount of pain and conflict during this time. The film was released in 2007 and stars actors like Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, and Dana Fuchs, with cameo appearances from Bono and McDerby 2Salma Hayek; all characters are named after Beatles’ songs. The story mainly follows Jude (Jim Sturgess), a man from Liverpool, England, who travels to America to find his estranged father. While there, he meets Max (Joe Anderson), a carefree student, who then introduces Jude to Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), Max’s sister. Jude and Max then drop Max’s ivy league life and move to New York City. In New York City, they make many new friends, including Sadie (Dana Fuchs, who is utilized to represent Janis Joplin), JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy, who represents Jimi Hendrix), and Prudence (T.V. Carpio). When Lucy moves to New York, a love story sparks between her and Jude. Their love story is a huge driving narrative of the film, along with Max’s time fighting in the Vietnam war. (Across the Universe)The opening of the film immediately begins with Jude sitting on a beach singing ‘Girl’. The lyrics of “Girl” foreshadow to the “girl” -Lucy, who he will soon meet. Right after “Girl” is finished, “Helter Skelter” plays as the opening credit scene. The opening credits flashes all the main characters but plays special attention to the character of Lucy. A still frame of her face and beautiful blue eyes become staple imagery for the rest of the film. These two songs are from different Beatles’ eras but they intertwine to show the variations of The Beatles’ music. These songs act just like the next song that is portrayed. “Hold Me Tight” is a cheesy and catchy song that came from The Beatles’ early years.
The character of Lucy is introduced by her singing “Hold Me Tight” in the original catchy style, showing its original innocent and lighthearted pop sound. But the scene is then mirrored with a gritty underground rock sound with Jude’s then girlfriend rougher voice accompanying. This underground Liverpool scene hints to The Beatles’ origins, who began in the Liverpool underground music scene. A band playing the instrumentals for “Hold Me Tight” in the Liverpool scene are actually wearing one of the iconic Beatles’ looks McDerby 3of black turtlenecks and black leather jackets. This “Easter egg” in Across the Universe is a little homage to the movie’s source material. ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is the first song of the movie that completely changes the style of the original Beatles’ version. The Beatles wrote and performed “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a simple and upbeat love song. At the time this song came out, The Beatles were still seen as a “boy band” due to their simple lyrics and catchy tunes. It was not until years later that they were able to break this mold and widen their repertoire to the way we know now. In Across the Universe, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is utilized to introduce an interesting new character, Prudence. Throughout the movie she is seen to be a very longing and adventurous character; she sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the same way. The song is completely made her own, instead of a catchy tune, it becomes a ballad of unrequited love. Prudence’s desire for the love of a classmate and her acknowledgement of that not happening, draws her to pack up her small-town Ohio life and head for New York City.Both ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ sung by Jude, and “If I Fell” sung by Lucy, are both love sequences of the early Beatles’ campy love songs. “I’ve Just Seen a Face” tells Jude’s love at first sight moment with Lucy, visually told by lighthearted bowling imagery. This song illustrates the playful beginnings of love. “If I Fell” is sung a little later in the film and paints Lucy’s hesitations about falling in love. It is a quiet and passionate hope for love in a time of her uncertainty. Both songs are meaningful renditions of the original songs, making them more unique to the story portrayed. The use of the song ‘Let It Be’ is the most striking and heartbreaking in the film. While the song is sung by a young boy thrown into the midst of the Detroit riots in 1967. The song is McDerby 4then finished by a gospel choir at the young boy’s funeral.
“Let it Be” is a song of hope in times of heartache and the scene portrayed is exactly that. The Detroit riots were some of the deadliest of that year, resulting in 43 deaths, 1,200 injuries, over 7,000 arrests (Moon) and brought immense loss and pain. But in the end, the Detroit riots and civil rights movement were fights for good and hope for a once criminalized people. By utilizing “Let it Be” for this scene, it showed the gravity of that harsh reality and a how there is a hope for a better tomorrow. ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ is a loud and intimidating song that imitates sounds of the Vietnam War and the draft. The song begins with a deep and booming step sound as Maxx enters. Animations of Uncle Sam are shown reaching out for Max, speaking the famous “I Want You” phrase. As the young men are brought into eligibility analysis for the draft, they are met with a choregraphed sequence of robotic soldiers, which adds to the rough and strict atmosphere of the army. “I Want You” represents the quick ways young men were brought into war and how seemingly replaceable they were. “She’s So Heavy” displays these men carrying the Statue of Liberty through the Vietnam jungles, symbolizing the weight of America on their shoulders. The Vietnam War was a devastating war where many unprepared young men “fulfilled their patriotic duty” by fighting for America. The war resulted in over 58,000 casualties and 64% of the soldiers who fought were under the age of 21 (“The Lessons of the Vietnam War”). While the original Beatles song is commonly interpreted as a longing love song, and it is illustrated that way through Prudence at the end of the song, it also is interpreted the way that Across the Universe portrayed it in Max’s scene. The deep and prominent bass of the song plays a huge part in making the song sound more military than loving. McDerby 5’Dear Prudence’ is the first glimpse into the acid phase of The Beatles’ music. It is marked by a dreamy sequence that eventually takes them to the first scene of anti-Vietnam war protests. This song and scene is perfectly transitioning the audience into the next parts of the narrative.
It hints to the shift of boy-bandish love songs to drug-induced musical creations, and it foreshadows to Lucy’s involvement in the anti-Vietnam war efforts. The musical transition is then confirmed with the next few songs: “Flying”, “Blue Jay Way”, and “I Am the Walrus”. These three songs are heavy versions of the original song, drawing the audience into a LSD trip, marked by fantastical visuals. “I Am the Walrus”, sung by Bono, introduces the character of Dr. Robert, which is a song and character by The Beatles. While the song “Dr. Robert” is never played, Dr. Robert is used to put a name to the leader of these LSD trips. Dr. Robert is an homage to the real LSD leader, Timothy Leary. The cryptic phrase, “turn on, tune in, and drop out” defined the 1960s counterculture. This phrase was coined by a Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary, who was a leading figure in the research of psychedelic drugs. Leary and his research partner were both removed and banished form their positions, they still became kings of LSD and the human potential movement (“Timothy Leary”). Leary’s iconic phrase was a cultural expression for many drug induced decades, but it did not mean what many thought. It was common thought that the phrase “turn on, tune in, and drop out” meant to get stoned and drop all responsibilities. To Leary, “turn on, tune in, and drop out” means to turn on the communication with your inner self, tune into the events of the outside world, and to drop out of the ties that bind us to restrictive positions and beliefs (Greenfield). The events of time could not be ignored, and Leary was very aware of this in his speech.McDerby 6In the song, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!’, a slight play on Leary’s phrase, “Just tune in, turn off, drop out, drop in, switch off, switch on, and explode,” is prevalent in the visuals of this scene. This dizzying carnival scene with odd, spoken lyrics, paints the “hippie idea” of Leary’s teaching. The main characters abandon their responsibilities at home to continue their acid trip. As their acid trip ends, the main characters are seen laying in a wheat field, singing “Because’. To me, this song is the most beautiful rendition of The Beatle’s original music, it completely different from previous songs. While the original song is similar, Across the Universe’s multilayered harmonies make the song new and fresh.
As the characters end “Because”, their rise from the water is met with war scenes. As it transitions into war, the calm music of safety turns into clam music of uncertainty. Now the narrative begins to show conflict between the characters and their situations. It starts with ‘Oh! Darling’ which is marked by rough guitar riffs and incorrect vocalization. The dissonance of the song represents the uneasy clash between the characters. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is a dark song sang by Jude and Max. The scene paints Vietnam war images that mirrors Jude’s artist angst. It is full of dark coloring with bright red strawberries, which act as grenades, explosions and blood. ‘Revolution’ signifies Jude’s anger and jealousy of Lucy’s anti-war efforts. Jude supports the cause, he wants to get Max back as much as Lucy does, but he sees the flaws in the organization, especially in the leadership. “Revolution” shows his breaking point. ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ brings a calm, yet troubled, feel into the narrative. It shows the time of unrest between the characters and America. It is emulated by Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination, a very dark time in the civil rights movement. These four songs illustrate The Beatles’ perspectives on the dark events of the time. McDerby 7’Across the Universe’, the namesake for the film, is illuminated through a chaotic and harsh sequence of events. It is accompanied and infused through “Helter Skelter”, a more passionate song of distress. It begins with a depressed Jude, hoping for a better tomorrow, with Lucy.
He is traveling to an anti-Vietnam protest to try to find Lucy. “Across the Universe” is a calm under the chaotic ‘Helter Skelter’ and is one of the few scenes of extra-diegetic music. “Across the Universe” is Jude’s calm tune of outside view where he only wants Lucy, matched with the hard rock of “Helter Skelter” played for the protestors being arrested. The songs are very dissonant with a mixing of songs in the forefront showing the distress of the protest. The songs then turn into a calm orchestral tune, where Max is seen amid a battle, where gunshots and explosions are heard. The music then becomes peaceful and quiet, shooting stops and “Across the Universe” is heard again. Calm images of water and women falling in are shown, signifying death of the Vietnamese people and end of the Vietnam War. While these two songs are from quite different Beatles’ eras, they were utilized to match the feelings of the war and its effects on the American people. ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’ perfectly illustrates the damages of the Vietnam War on the young men who served. In the scene, these men are given a “happiness” drug by Salma Hayek’s character(s). The lyrics of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” can be interpreted in many ways and all of those are implied in this scene. Many Vietnam veterans, over 30% (Robins), suffer from PTSD and more likely to commit suicide than civilians. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” can imply that the only happiness that could be brought to the soldiers was one less enemy, meaning a sooner end of the war. It also could be that the “warm gun” represents the drug use of the soldiers and veterans, and that happiness is only after they use drugs.
Heroin was very readily available in Vietnam, meaning most soldiers were exposed and even used heroin during the war (Robins). In a study done in 1977, published for Problems of Drug Dependence, found that “Eighty-five percent of the men told us that they had been offered heroin while they were there—often quite soon after their arrival…Thirty-five percent of Army enlisted men actually tried heroin while in Vietnam, and 19% became addicted to it.” Another “warm gun” was morphine, routinely given to the veterans when they returned home. “Happiness is a Warm Gun” epitomizes the backhanded benefits of how the veterans were treated after the war.From pain and worry between all the characters, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘All You Need Is Love’ are the last few songs of the movie and show the characters all reunited together once again. Both songs hints back to The Beatles’ earlier music of love and positivity and are songs of love between two of the movie’s main couples. Jude sings “All You Need is Love” in the hope of finding and reconnecting with Lucy. This love scene and the end of the movie is concluded with the two characters seeing each other from separate roofs, even though they are not physically close, it is implied that their love begins again. In this paper, I did a musical analysis of many songs portrayed in the film Across the Universe. This film visually paints the many styles of The Beatles’ music. I could discuss much more, to me it is a visual and musical joyride. Even though Across the Universe was met with mixed critical and audience reviews, it will always be a top movie for me. As a person who grew up on The Beatles’ music, this movie allows me to see the whimsy and beauty that their music portrays.
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