[This is a “Best of the ‘Gest” entry, but I can’t figure out how to reverse the type over the image. SB Alec wrote this review/reminiscence in 2016, and it was published in the Digest in 2020. His current project is his recollection of a Vermont boyhood. With the debut of Peter Jackson’s Beatles trilogy, it seems like a good time for this to resurface. SB SM]
The Silverbacks started as a “film society in Vermont. Each season has a theme, and individuals rotate choosing a film, providing a theme-related snack, and writing a review.
The 2015/16 season revolved around music. SB Alec Hastings penned the following:
A Magical Mystery Tour with Across the Universe
On seeing Julie Taymor’s film, Across the Universe, I was reminded of the summer I spent at Camp Rising Sun in 1967 when I was sixteen. As I watched the movie and listened to the Beatles’ great songs, I dove down Gracie Slick’s rabbit hole and took a magical mystery tour through my own past. I was skeptical about Camp Rising Sun before I arrived. Its name conjured up World War II Japan and kamikaze pilots flying zeroes into U.S. Navy warships. Louis Jonas, the founder of the camp, allayed my concerns on the day I arrived. Freddie, as we fondly called him, was bringing boys from all over the world to Rhinebeck, New York that summer hoping we would join his ongoing experiment to promote international understanding. We did join, of course, with the help of our counselors. We played soccer, staged the Pirates of Penzance, discussed Socrates under a catalpa tree, and waited, love-starved and breathless, for Delmar Day when a nearby girls’ camp would visit us for an evening dance.
A counselor named Phil Terry became my friend that summer. One day I walked into his tent while he was playing a record by Mississippi John Hurt. I’m still grateful for that discovery. It led to many more. I also remember the day he showed me another record album he had just bought. The cover art was a collage showing the Beatles surrounded by famous people, and it was like nothing I’d ever seen.1 It was the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, of course. I was well acquainted with the Beatles—but not these Beatles. I didn’t even know the term psychedelic yet, but I think I had a premonition of the “long, strange trip” in store for me.
That album was a harbinger of all the exciting, scary, and momentous changes soon to come. My brother Scott left for college that fall, and I drove to Flagstaff, Arizona with the rest of my family so my father could earn a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. President Johnson sent more and more troops to the Vietnam War, and we saw atrocities from that war on Walter Cronkite’s nightly news. Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, and race riots broke out in American cities. In 1969 the most famous rock concert of all time took place in Woodstock, New York, and that same year I registered for the draft.
I’m telling you all this because I can only think of the sixties in a personal way, and that’s how I need to talk about Across the Universe. In the late sixties I was falling in love, making lifelong friends, and hitchhiking across the country. I was puzzling over the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War, racial discrimination, and my own future, and I was doing it all to the music of the Beatles. So were a lot of other people. This is what you will find in Across the Universe—something personal but also universal, a story set to music that will bring you to the heart of the sixties, to an experience in the best Hendrix sense of the word.2
Jude, Max, Lucy, Sadie, and Prudence are all named from Beatles’ songs, and they are both individuals and types. Jude is a McCartney/Lennon look-alike who leaves Liverpool to look for the American G.I. who had a brief romance with his mother and then went back to the states never knowing he had a son. Jude and Max become fast friends, and when Max drops out of Princeton University, the two of them move to a bohemian neighborhood in New York City. Max’s sister Lucy joins them after her boyfriend Daniel dies in Vietnam. Jude and Lucy fall in love to the accompaniment of Lennon’s ballad “If I Fell,” and then these two and their many friends begin the great sixties experiment in communal living, anti-war and civil rights activism, free love, psychedelic consciousness raising, and of course, music!
It’s a wonderful film. What makes it so wonderful are the fresh, passionate interpretations of over thirty Beatles’ songs; the carefully chosen, sometimes exotic costumes that were a hallmark of the period (check out the Bread and Puppet sequences); the authentic props and on-location sets in Liverpool and New York; excellent camera work and special effects that often mirror the creativity of sixties-era artists; and a tight script that sends the audience on a history tour that is also magical. Director Taymor has won awards for costume design, set design, and musical direction, and the awards are well deserved. She assembled a skilled team of actors and filmmakers to produce Across the Universe, and the result is a beautifully rendered work of art.
The decade of the sixties was a time of great civil strife. Americans disagreed bitterly about the Vietnam War, racial integration, abortion, and changing roles for women, gays and lesbians. Could that account in any way for the mixed reviews when this film was released forty years later in 2007? I don’t know. If the professional critics were divided on the movie, however, ordinary viewers were not. A sample of over 300,000 people gave the film almost four out of five stars.3 I side with the people on this one. If you weren’t there for the sixties, or if you’d like to go back, take the tour and watch Across the Universe. I hope you like it as much as I did.
by Alec Hastings
(Editor’s note: SB Alec sounds intelligent, but this is what he looks like in real life:
2 Yes, this could refer to a consciousness-raising experience with marijuana or LSD. As the years since the sixties have shown, however, a drug experience does not necessarily raise consciousness. As Hendrix himself said in the song (“Are You Experienced?” 1967) this could just as easily mean “not necessarily stoned, but beautiful.”