On the list of movies featuring Beatles songs, this one comes far below A Hard Day’s Night, Yellow Submarine, Let It Be, and Help but slightly above Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, maybe somewhere around Magical Mystery Tour.
Director Julie Taymor is best known for Broadway version of “The Lion King,” which is itself best known for its visual splendor. And least known for its plot. There is visual splendor in this story of characters coping with the 60’s, to the tune of Beatles songs, but not much by way of plot. And the song covers by most of its stars are strictly with Beatles Night on “American Idol.” In one of those early episodes before much elimination.
For people who remember the 60’s, the movie’s look and sound will be poor competition for the kaleidoscopic visual and aural brilliance of the original Beatles creations and the story and characters will be superficial and simplistic compared to the kaleidoscopic upheavals of the era.
Those who know the Beatles’ work will find the movie’s references uninspired recreations rather than re-imaginings or responses. The character names say it all: Jude, Lucy, Max, Sadie, Rita, Prudence, JoJo, Dr. Robert, Mr. Kite, get it? Too on the nose. Max has a hammer. The singer and her band play on the roof until the police come to shut them down. People not familiar with the 60’s will wonder what the fuss was about.
There are some very clever touches in the staging of the musical numbers, as when at an induction physical, the Uncle Sam posters sing “I Want You” or in a couple of scenes where one song is played in sharply contrasting contexts. There are also some brilliant images, especially when the characters experiment with hallucinogens. But the story and characters are thin and so are the singing voices of most of the performers, with Eddie Izzard’s Mr. Kite, Bono’s Dr. Robert, and newcomer Dana Fuchs as a Janis Joplin-eque Sadie as welcome exceptions.
But they are supporting roles with too-brief appearances as the center stage goes to the featherweight story about a romance between blue collar Liverpudlian Jude (Jim Sturgess) and an American suburban princess named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose boyfriend was killed in Viet Nam. Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) and Jude move into one of those adorably Bohemian, summer of love, starving artist garrets in Greenwich Village, run by Sadie (Fuchs). They are soon joined by Jimi Hendrix-ish JoJo (Martin Luther) and unhappy-in-love Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who came in through the bathroom window, get it? Jude wants to be an artist; Lucy wants to protest the war. And everybody goes on a magical mystery tour and meets Dr. Robert and Mr. Kite.
It is overlong and under-written, visually vibrant but thematically transparent. The characters are more alive in the original Beatles songs than they are on the screen. And that leaves us nowhere, man.
Parents should know that the characters in this movie drink, smoke, and use drugs, including marijuana and hallucinogenics. They briefly use strong language and there are some emotional confrontations. The movie includes battle violence in Viet Nam, police brutality, and an offscreen explosion of a bomb built by protesters against the war. Characters are injured and there are sad offscreen deaths. Images include nudity, some stylized, and non-explicit sexual situations. A strength of the movie is the loyal and supportive relationships between characters of racial, gender, and sexual orientation diversity.
Families who see this movie should discuss some of their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences during the 1960’s. And they should listen to the original versions of the Beatles songs. Why are these songs so enduring and what groups today are producing songs that people will still want to hear in 40 years?