Taymor tackles Beatles tunes in ‘Universe’
Newton native Julie Taymor keeps managing to shine in every entertainment medium she approaches.
She became a darling of PBS with early TV films such as “Fool’s Fire,” grabbed Tony gold for her Broadway production of “The Lion King” and now has wrapped together the music of the Beatles and the power of cinema in her film musical “Across the Universe.”
The dazzling whirlwind of stories about a trio of young people in 1960s Liverpool and New York features about 30 minutes of dialogue in its 133-minute running time. The rest boasts reinventions of about three dozen Beatles tunes, most of them sung live by a young, relatively unknown cast, along with a few pop cameos.
Taymor came on to the project a few years ago after a Beatles-related Broadway musical she was preparing fell through.
“There was only a three-page treatment,” she says of the film, “so I developed the story, whittled about 200 Beatles songs down to about 33, and then we developed all these characters who could sing those songs.”
The original idea was that it would be a love story set in the ’60s, during what Taymor describes as “this evocative, psychedelic, wild, tumultuous era. But the songs created the characters, and the whole story kept developing that way.”
The soundtrack ranges from the early simplicity of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “If I Fell” to the bizarre complexity of “I Am the Walrus” and “I Want You.” In line with that approach, the film has light, intimate moments as well as giant scenes of fantasy and hallucination.
“In a theater setting, those would be the big dance numbers,” says Taymor of the latter. “In cinema, you have all the means -- CGI, animation, dance, puppetry. But the [quiet] songs are as equally significant as the big production numbers because we’re focused on the characters and what they’re feeling. If you don’t have that, then the production stuff is a waste of time. So we had the balancing act of structuring a musical.”
Taymor, who started shooting the complex film almost two years ago, recently saw it in London, sitting in a theater with Paul McCartney and a friend of his.
“That was a very nerve-racking experience,” she says, laughing. “But he loved it and said it was very exciting. ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Mr. Kite’ were his two favorite numbers.”
But Taymor was nervous well before that private screening. She knew that just dealing with Beatles music would be a sort of burden, and she worried that fans would be upset that she and her creative team were taking these incredibly familiar songs and putting them into a literal context.
“It’s always how you do it,” she says. “It’s in the performances and the talent of your collaborators. You have to go in with blinders, and believe that the performances and how you shoot it and how you tell it is going to make sense. You want people to get completely into the characters, and you also want the lyrics to be their dialogue. That’s what’s really unusual about having songs that were written 40 years ago feel like they’re coming out of these people’s mouths as they’re singing them. The Beatles don’t exist in the movie. This is a musical. That means the songs are fresh, as they’re sung, at that moment, from the heart and the intellect of the characters.
“So people might say to us, ‘Are you crazy? Are you out of your mind to do this?’ And we go, ‘Sure, but what a fun thing to try.’ ”
“Across the Universe” opens Sept. 14 in select cities.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.