For ages, Beatles tunes have been the cornerstone of creative impulse for many artists (reportedly, Paul Thomas Anderson based the entirety of his 1999 Magnolia on the band’s seismic, haunting “A Day in the Life”), and when it was announced that theater-turned-cinema dynamo Julie Taymor was ready to give us a movie collage of their songs (not the original versions, alas), one’s mind raced with the possibility of an explosive marriage of styles. The end result, a two-hour-plus Forrest Gump-on-acid pageant tracking a group of idealistic, artistic souls through the Vietnam era, unfortunately plays more like one imagines next year’s film version of Mamma Mia! will be: a catalog of pop tunes cobbled together via a rather trite and forgettable storyline, except here you can’t dance along to “Waterloo” at the end.
Taymor’s signatures are visible throughout—inventive puppetry, symmetrical mise-en-scène, psychedelic flourishes—but she is clearly trying hard to gussy up a screenplay that plays more like The Wonder Years without the cultural insight (funnily enough, crooner Joe Cocker makes a cameo). Jude (Jim Sturgess, the film’s breakout performer) is an English lad who drifts into the U.S. to seek his long-lost dad but ends up befriending a merry band that becomes his new family, and his best pal Max (Joe Anderson) is a rabble-rousing lout who has a babelicious younger sis (Evan Rachel Wood) who Jude ends up falling for. The two then find themselves immersed in America’s growing tumult, and roughly every 90 seconds, a Beatles song lets us all know where their heads are, which turns out to be in every literal direction one can imagine (a bowl of strawberries provides the basis to, yup, “Strawberry Fields Forever”).
The actors do their own singing, rather impressively, and the songs are as sharp as ever. But much like some recent musicals that haven’t worked, the songs don’t punctuate the narrative in any truly iconic or significant way. Unlike Todd Haynes’s Velvet Goldmine, a film that unforgettably and nimbly linked its excesses of style to its narrative, Taymor struggles with this story’s inherent corniness. If it weren’t for a few dabs in almost R-rated territory (Wood’s breast is highly visible in one scene, not to mention the imagery of a group of painted naked women hovering above the ocean), you could well be watching a distaff, boho version of Friends, except with some of the best music ever composed. Taymor seems well aware of the “head” music pictures of the past (Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall) and occasionally comes close to skirting their arena, but mostly the film already feels like a relic, and an innocuous, disposable one at that. The film’s coda instills in us that “All You Need is Love” (duh duh, duh-duh-duh), but in this case, love isn’t all you need. Some inspiration would have been enough.