The past year has been a great time to be a Beatles fan. There are rumors of a new song (seriously), “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” brought John’s political life to nationwide theaters, Paul and Ringo appeared on Larry King with the widows of George and John and we’ve seen the production of two Beatles-themed shows: the Cirque du Soleil extravaganza “LOVE” and Julie Taymor’s movie-musical Across the Universe,” as well as their accompanying soundtracks.
The LOVE album was the project of the “fifth Beatle,” the producer George Martin and his son Giles. Effectively a mash-up album, it employed re-mastered versions of the Beatles’s original tapes to create an entirely new sequence of classic songs. Of course, despite its rearranged mix, LOVE had one major thing going for it – it was still the Beatles playing all the parts. Across the Universe doesn’t have that luxury. When it comes down to it, these are covers, and nothing can anger a devoted fan – and Beatles fans are nothing if not devoted – more than a butchered cover. Fortunately, Across the Universe: Music from the Motion Picture avoids disappointment, at least mostly.
Amazingly enough, the album falters most with the songs performed by U2 leader and über-star Bono – “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “I Am the Walrus.” “Lucy,” that masterpiece of sparse psychedelia, is overwrought of all things, and “Walrus” is, frankly, dull. The Beatles’s music is the sound of youth, and aging-pop-star Bono delivers his covers very much like an aging pop star. This isn’t U2, and it shouldn’t be.
But the same doesn’t go for Joe Cocker, a man who’s been covering the Beatles since before Woodstock. His gruff “Come Together” is a rousing highlight of the record.
But these cameo performances, even Cocker’s, are merely superficial attractions. The soul of this record and the film it accompanies is the young cast members, who bring a sense of character to these songs that reminds you that Across the Universe is still a musical. Indeed, it’s unfortunate that these arrangements have never been performed on a Broadway stage. “Let it Be” is a gospel song, featuring a full choir and soulful, improvised lead vocals – and it works. T.V. Carpio’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is heartrending in its longing. Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther McCoy belt out their duet of “Oh! Darling” just like Paul did on Abbey Road, and they play off each other with bluesy furor. Joe Anderson is relegated to only two tracks, but they’re both brilliant. His rendition of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” is particularly impressive, communicating junkie desperation over a bare acoustic arrangement.
And of course, we have the film’s stars, Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood. Sturgess is outstanding, and his “Across the Universe” is a showstopper – perfect for a song that John considered among his best. Wood’s “Blackbird,” sung over an arrangement sparse enough to be nearly a capella, carries with it a touchingly desperate hopefulness.
Most impressive is the producers’ restraint. “Strawberry Fields Forever” features a new, highly percussive arrangement full of low drones worthy of a 1980s indie band, but thankfully that haunting harmonium intro remains. It just wouldn’t be the same without it.
Across the Universe: Music from the Motion Picture is a good as anyone can reasonably expect it to be. The cast performs admirably, and with the exception of Bono’s unimpressive performances, a Beatles fan could do much worse.
3.5 out of 5 stars.