Jun 182019

In Defense takes a second look at a much maligned cover artist or album and asks, “Was it really as bad as all that?”

across the universe soundtrack

Moviemakers can’t get enough of the Beatles. At the end of the month, Yesterday debuts, with a tantalizing premise: What if no one but you remembers the Beatles? You can claim their songs as your own and piggyback your way towards stardom. 

Over a decade ago, Julie Taymor, perhaps best known as the director who brought The Lion King to Broadway, took a swing at another Beatles-related movie, bringing us Across the Universe. This movie takes place in the ’60s and follows characters with original names like JoJo, Jude, Lucy, Max, Prudence, and Sadie through the Vietnam War and plenty of drug trips.

Despite the fact that Sir Paul McCartney himself said he enjoyed the film, a fun fact revealed by Taymor to Oprah during an interview, critics have middling feelings. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave it 2.5/4 stars. Stephen Holden of the New York Times admits:

Somewhere around its midpoint, ‘Across the Universe’ captured my heart, and I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person. Imperfections, however glaring, become endearing quirks once you’ve tumbled.

Rotten Tomatoes’ Critics Consensus summarizes the overall sentiment best:

Psychedelic musical numbers can’t mask Across the Universe’s clichéd love story and thinly written characters.

All that being said, these are critiques of the movie, not the music, and I’m here to defend the soundtrack as an enjoyable cover album. Throughout, I’ll set the scene in context of the movie because the motivation behind the evoked emotion is crucial to the success of these covers. These covers all have very different tones than the original. They don’t try to be the Beatles. The performers just try to express their feelings and tell their own stories through the words and tunes of the legends.

Jim Sturgess – Girl (The Beatles Cover)

Picture Jim Sturgess (Jude), alone on a beach, staring directly at you singing this. This stark cover, stripped of instruments, and clipped to a minute, contrasts the lilting original. Jude’s version lacks the Beatles’ harmony on “a girl” and the gentle acoustic guitar plucks. The solo-ness of the cover as a whole produces an overall haunting effect. The need for somebody to listen to his story is palpable.

T.V. Carpio – I Want To Hold Your Hand (The Beatles Cover)

T.V. Carpio (Prudence) stares longingly at a fellow cheerleader and football player. In a twist, it becomes clear throughout the song that the object of her gaze is the cheerleader. “I can’t hide” takes on a whole new level of import.

The original is much more upbeat and cheery, complete with background clapping to keep the energy high. You can just picture the Beatles members bobbing back and forth to the beat. This cheer gave the Beatles their first number one song on the United States Billboard charts. Again, Across the Universe provides a stripped-down version, allowing the lyrics to be more deeply felt. Carpio’s voice is strong and clear. Although her message is urgent, she sings without a rush.

Joe Cocker – Come Together (The Beatles Cover)

Musically, this cover is very similar to the original. From the precise, staccato diction to the guitar solo, this version stays true to the Beatles while adding an additional layer of storytelling.

As JoJo makes his way through the streets of New York City for the first time, we hear a slightly distorted version of the distinctive opening bass line. Throughout, Jojo hears urges to “come together” from homeless people, prostitutes, and a pimp. The dissonance of being implored to  “come together” while being disoriented in a new place makes the denouement as he closes out the song himself even more powerful. Jojo finds a way to come together over NYC.

Dana Fuchs, Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, T.V. Carpio – Dear Prudence (The Beatles Cover)

Prudence is literally hiding in the closet, which even in this defense I’ll admit is a bit too on the nose. She is depressed because of (what else but) unrequited love. Who can resist “Sexy Sadie?”

The Beatles’ version has the guitar always in the forefront. In this version, the song starts out with the strong guitar. However, as we get to the lyrics, the guitar takes a backseat to the vocals. The lyrics get passed around, and we get to hear from different voices. Fuchs starts strong, able to carry the opening by herself. Sturgess and Wood then chime in and harmonize. The song builds with added percussion and then eventually fades with a dampening backbeat.

Jim Sturgess – Revolution (The Beatles Cover)

Motivated by a lover’s quarrel mixed with arguments about politics (Lucy criticizes Jude for not doing more for the anti-war effort) in a laundromat, Jude makes a scene at Lucy’s workplace. The original hardcore beginning and the continual electric guitar aren’t matched by the rest of the Beatles’ delivery, although they do close with some increasingly frantic “alright” screaming. Instead, these spunky elements have much more in common with Sturgess’ sardonic “we all want to change the world.”

The electric guitar background in this cover sound less like guitar and more like microphone interference which only adds to the ambiance of discord. Sturgess’s delivery is completely in tune with that moment where you switch from believing that anything is possible to feeling beaten down by “the man” and becoming a disillusioned youth. We’ve all been there.

Dana Fuchs – Don’t Let Me Down (The Beatles Cover)

For this song Sadie and JoJo reunite their band after a falling out, performing this song on top of a building. Don’t ask me how this fits into the story line; it just conveniently mirrors the Beatles performance of this song on the Apple’s rooftop.  The occasional falsetto in the original is missing, but Fuchs is able to match the soulful, imploring voice. She adds a smoky undertone that shows how much of a powerhouse vocalist she can be.

Say what you will of Across the Universe as a movie, but thought of as a cover album, it has shining moments. If we think of the characters as cover artists who bring their own backstory to their music, we can hear these Beatles classics with a new frame of mind.

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