Across The Universe Soundtrack (Part 1)

I really like The Beatles.

Of course, given their popularity in culture, that’s like saying “I really like having ice cream for desert”.  It’s just one option out of a plethora of other choices.  The problem with that phrase, however, is that if you follow it to the letter, then you miss out on more tantalizing options, like pie and jellybeans and Reeses.  But not cake.  Because that is a lie.  The same holds true for The Beatles.  If you limit yourself to just their music, you risk discovering the groups that take their ideas and go far beyond them.

But I could go on all day about The Beatles’ influence on other bands (and probably all week).  So, I’ll instead talk about a filmaker who was influenced by The Fab Four.

Across The Universe is a musical film directed by Julie Taymor, who is best known for directing + doing some random stuff for a few Broadway productions (including the ever polarizing Spider-Man: The Musical), as well as doing that one Titus film.  It tells the story of a young British guy who decides to go to America because… well, the reason is not only half-hearted, it’s also constantly fluctuating.  He meets a brother and sister, as well as a couple musicians, and they all experience the 1960’s.

That’s it.  That’s the movie.

While it’s quite clear that this movie didn’t receive any merit for it’s storytelling, it’s main draw was being a musical film that encorporated nothing but The Beatles’ music.  Well, that’s not entirely accurate.  Technically, the film’s score was composed of Beatles’ covers: Songs that The Beatles had written and performed, done by different musicians.  The aim of this move, however, was to create the songs in a different way than their predecessors did, mainly by contemporazing these songs so that audiences who weren’t born when The Beatles were famous could get introduced to their music, and those that were familiar with The Beatles’ catalogue could hear different renditions of their favorite songs.

And after reading that last part, you can immediately predict the outcome of that little manuever.

The rift between an original song and it’s cover can be a very large expanse.  Even the decision to make a cover song is one that is weighed heavily against a person’s view of the original.  Usually, it boils down to two reasons: “I like the song enough to try and encorporate it into a style that’s more fitting for me” or “I don’t like the song as it is, and I’m going to make it better by putting my personal tastes and styles into it”.  There’s also talk about doing it for the money, but this isn’t the 1940’s anymore.  Songs are getting more and more restricted to their original owners, not like jazz where it can be free game for any ensemble with a trumpet and drum set.  In any case, there’s hardly an in-between for the root cause of a cover.  And even then, you’d be lucky to find someone to admit they didn’t like the song they were covering.

As such, there’s always going to be a conflict to the audience when it comes to songs and their covers.  People who love the original will clash with the ones who like the cover.  It’s practically a given.  While there are people who can enjoy both, that wouldn’t make for conflict.  And besides, there will always be a really large gap between The Carpenters and Sonic Youth.  You’d have to have eclectic tastes to like both.  And while it may work for some artists, it won’t work for them all.  Incidentally, this is where covers both have the upper hand and suffer a massive downfall: it all comes down to taste in music.  There is hardly any other medium out there today that is more prone to objective and subjective arguments and criticism than music.  Really.  Movies can be saved by actors, scenes, and all the little things in between.  Likewise, games can be adored for their gameplay and competitive challenge when the story and characters fail.  Even books can survive heavy criticism with their ideas and execution in plot details.  But music?  There is very little wiggle room for it to avoid criticism and hate.  Sure, there are people who can find some songs “OK” at most neutral.  But wait until you start delving into the songs that people outright hate.  That list gets pretty full, moreso than games, movies, and books.  [If you’d like more info on how full, I recommend checking out “Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs”.  Also, you’re welcome, in advance. :)]

This is where Across The Universe comes into the fray.  Given the massive fanbase/cultural shock of The Beatles, one would have to be very cautious to even attempt to touch something that was so endeared by the public, in fear that it will risk outright dislike and hatred from people.  It’d be one thing if it was simply just asking for royalties to use the songs for the movie.  But that’s not how Julie Taymor works, nosiree Bob.  No, she feels that there has to be a drastic change.  A contemporary view of The Beatles to go with 21st Century graphics and shooting techniques, all to a film that takes place… in the 1960’s.

So, the purpose of this bit is to tell my views on the soundtrack and compare it to the original Beatles songs that came before.  Because, ultimately, that’s all you can do: give a view.  You can say it’s right or wrong, but that’s not going to make it true for everyone.

But since that’s hardly exciting, I’ll also give a running score on which one I prefer, so as to give an illusion of worth.  Because I’m totally cool like that, dude.

– – –

There are 31 songs on my soundtrack album, so I’m going to cover 5 at a time.  Let’s start with the opening:

Right off the bat, this is an interesting pick, because honestly, I like the ATU version, even though it’s technically not the complete song.  I like the atmosphere that the cover gives.  The fade opening, like some ethereal being who parts the clouds and asks those below “Is there anybody going to listen to my story?” (Because ethereal beings totally don’t need to speek proper, word.) 

I like The Beatles’ rendition, but ATU’s makes it appear to have more weight, more drama to the singer.  The Beatles’ version sounds almost like a bard’s ballad in the middle ages, with its small guitar and minimalistic percussion.  The ATU version, however, gives the impression of an almost supernaturl tale, like that ethereal being mentioned previously.  Granted, the movie ends up nothing like that, but on its own, the music is very melancholy and introspective.

So, even though it’s shorter, I give a point to ATU’s copy

Across The Universe – 1 / The Beatles – 0

On to the next one!

Tricky song, because it’s repetitive, which I’m not a fan of in the first place.  When you have a repetitive song like this, you have to take into account the feeling of the song, the dynamics, and how it’s performed.  Unfortunately, both of them are pretty much performed the same way.  By practice, the point should go to The Beatles since they came out with it first, but I don’t settle for things winning by default.  So lets look at them more closely.

First, The Beatle’s version is a song that is performed by four men.  A bassist, two guitarists, and a drummer.  Everyone except the drummer sings, and for the album, all of them do handclaps.  It’s a song that has very little in the realm of dynamics.  Even at the bridge segments at 1:00 and 1:41, it hardly sounds different from the driving portion of the main chorus.  And it basically maintains the same rhythm throughout, with no changes made.  But the appeal here is that this was all done by four guys, not a whole big band or orchestra.  And for singing a melody and two-part harmony while also playing instruments, that’s a pretty impressive feat.

The ATU version has a whole company of singers and instrumentalists.  They have the usual band affair with guitarists, a bassist, and a drummer, but also a pianist, and a company of singers to go with the song.  Most of the singing, however, is presented to Lucy (played by Evan Rachel Wood [yes, that is a girl, and  no, you can’t date her, Marilyn Manson ate her up]).  While the song is still as repetitive as The Beatles’, it has more to offer dynamic-wise.  Namely, during those bridge segments, it quite clearly gets quieter, which adds a positive view towards their cover.  However, the formation of the performers brings it down because the only important person who’s performing is singing, while the others are relegated to back-up band status.

Also, there’s the point of there actually being two versions of the song, but I’m only counting what’s on the album, and that second one is not in there.  So, tragedy.  Shock.  Disbelief.  Peanut.  Brittle.

So which one is better: a smaller ensemble doing their own repetitive music at the same volume, or a singer with a large back-up band playing repetitive music with a little more volume change?

In the end, I have to side with ATU on this one.  I really dig what four Beatles can do, but ATU’s difference in dynamics really makes the repetitive song more bearable to listen to.  Also, composing for three harmonizing men is all well and good, but composing for harmonizing men and women requires more work.

Across The Universe – 2 / The Beatles – 0

That’s all well and good, but what about the next one?

Again, it’s the same issue with the last song: repetitive.  However, it’s much clearer which one sounds better.  ATU once again does it’s best to make a song with very little dynamics into one that sounds compelling.  By having Jude (the main character as played by Jim Sturgess) start off by himself, it gives it a head start from The Beatles’ repetitive tune.

However, I have to say that, confidence-wise, Paul McCartney’s vocals sound better than Jim’s.  Especially towards the end, when it sounds like Jim is struggling with the high notes.  Just because he can reach them doesn’t mean he can pull them off the same way Paul can.  Also, the ATU version lacks a guitar solo, which George Harrison adds to the original.  It may be nit-picky, but I’d have to go with The Beatles on this one, if only because I prefer to hear Paul McCartney sing this over Jim.  Plus, the guitar solo.  I mean, it sounded like the ATU one tried to initiate one, but then it just went back to doing the basic song instead of doing something else.

So, with that in mind:

Across The Universe – 2 / The Beatles – 1

So we finally got The Beatles in the mix.  Let’s move on to number 4:

Finally, something well known!  This one is a really easy decision for me.

First off, let’s examine the mood of ATU.  The song is very subdued, every note a subtlety to go along with the singer.  It starts off quietly (save for the singer), but then it starts to ramp up.  Until the bridge, where it kinda falls off the radar.  And then starts to build back up again.  All the while, the singer switches between being shy and boldy singing how… she… wants to hold… her hand?

See, that’s the trip-up for me: It’s a girl singing this song.  In the movie, she’s a cheerleader who has feelings for another cheerleader.  What a twist from the original Beatles song, right?  Well, that’s what also kills it for me.  As a guy, I’d actually like to be able to sing “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to someone I care about.  Because it fits perfectly.  I really like holding hands.  I find a connection there that hugs or kisses don’t really achieve for me.  That’s why I like this song so much, because it mirrors my own preferences.  Having a girl sing it would be fine.  The lesbian part is only known if you’re watching the movie.  Surely, a girl singing this song wouldn’t be problematic for that kind of situation, right?


Sorry, but I’ll stick with Paul McCartney and John Lennon, thank you.

Also, the subdued nature of the song doesn’t do much for me.  I get that it’s supposed to sound secretive and hushed, wanting to build up, and that’s cool that it has personality to it.  But the happiness that’s shining from The Beatles’ version is a much more powerful personality than the ATU version.  It’s saying with a loud voice “I want to hold your hand!”  And that seems more earnest than someone who sits off to the side going “… I wanna hold your hand…”  Yeah, it’s the 1960’s, and lesbians were frowned upon back then, but once again: not counting the movie.  I’m counting the song, and the song just doesn’t measure up to the original, even if the original still has the repetitiveness of the last two.

So, very easily for me:

Across The Universe – 2 / The Beatles – 2

It’s tied up.  Let’s see what the last song for this part will award the point to:

Oh man, something from Sgt. Peppers.  Big move, considering it’s accolades.  So, how does it fare?

Really, it doesn’t.  From the get go with the discordant guitar, you know that you’re in for something that won’t live up to the original.  The cover sounds like a song that got mixed without the bass and drums.  And it’s significantly lesser for it.  Especially when you compare it to the original, which has everything still intact.  Sure, it’s got a great singer singing it, but he’s underused here as opposed to the rest of the album (but I’ll get to those songs when we arrive to them).  They’re using him to sing a song that was written for Ringo, who wasn’t the singer that McCartney, Lennon, even Harrison was.  Oh, but that’s OK.  We’ve got Jude singing with him.  That will add things to it, yeah?

You remember earlier when I said that the bass and drums sound like they’re missing?  That’s not the only thing.  The chemistry between Jude and Max sounds very hollow in the ATU version.  Especially Jude’s, who sounds like he had some of that imaginary weed while recording the song as well as in the movie.  The Beatles’ version at least gives the impression that Ringo gets by with a little help from his friends, who just so happen to be McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison.  And it shows.  Now, I know that Ringo isn’t the best singer in the world, but he manages to sound more into the song than Jude and Max do.

It would have been a close call, but really: missing drums and bass when you have guitar work like that is just plain inexcusable, even if you are trying to be different.  So:

Across The Universe – 2 / The Beatles – 3

Well, this turned out rather interesting.  But there’s still much more ground to cover.  Who will win this race?  Find out next time on… !

… Um… this place.

… So yeah.


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