September’s Song of the Month: a Beatles Pick AND a Movie Review?!

The cast of

The cast of "Across the Universe," a movie with only Beatles songs for the soundtrack, looks forward with the artistic background for the "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" scene. Courtesy of www.popmatters.com

Bayliss Wagner, Team Leader

What makes you long for the feeling of autumn emerging at the end of September? Maybe it’s just me, preoccupied with college applications, but I imagine red, orange and brown leaves falling upon students as they weave past tall, Gothic university buildings on a wide-open lawn. I imagine new connections and new people and hopes for new love; I imagine the scent of thin, crisp fall air; I imagine adventuring with friends.

A new film on Netflix, “Across the Universe,” opens with these precise images. The English protagonist, Jude, travels to America to search for his father, whom he found on Princeton’s faculty list. It turns out that his father is only the college janitor, but while Jude explores the campus, he meets Max, a brilliant delinquent who leaves Princeton to move to New York City only to be served with a draft notice to the Vietnam War.

Jude and Max share an apartment with Max’s passionate, vivacious sister, Lucy, a wild-haired, deep-voiced singer named Sadie, a girl named Prudence and a night-wandering guitarist named Jo-Jo.

Sense a theme here? Think “Hey Jude,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Dear Prudence” and “Sexy Sadie.” The cast of the movie sings over 40 Beatles songs that form the backdrop for this romantic historical drama.

My education in Beatles music took a mighty step forward when I watched “Across the Universe” this September. The cast’s impassioned and sometimes drugged-out, hallucinatory, visual renditions of every different type of Beatles song gives their music, over 45 years since the band’s popular crescendo in the 60s, a profound emotional context. They did not use the original versions of each track but instead re-interpreted the music to capture the feeling of the original while matching the tone of each scene.

After watching the movie, I made a playlist of every Beatles song available on iTunes and listened to it while I drove back and forth to school and while I did homework. I had trouble choosing one song from their diverse discography, but I knew that one of them would fit September and my excitement for Fall perfectly.

“Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is my favorite Beatles album because of the way the band creates elaborate, wacky characters like The Celebrated Mr. K, the tearful parents from “She’s Leaving Home,” a meter maid named Rita and the aging grandparents of “When I’m 64,” then tells their stories in a playful, satirical way.

“A Day in the Life,” one of the most interesting and profound Beatles songs, epitomizes the approach of the Sgt. Pepper album. George Harrison—finding inspiration in a daily paper—uses sparse, quotidian lyrics and a screeching shift in the middle of the song to sing a story of irony in tragedy: in the paper is the sad news about a man who “blew his mind out in a car.” Witnesses of the crash spend more time trying to figure out whether he is from the House of Lords than they do trying to help him and readers of the paper laugh.

Later in the song, after the pace increases, we hear, “woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…looking up, I noticed I was late.” This reminds me of many a September morning when I would wake up 25 minutes after my alarm should have gone off, as if I didn’t have to brush my teeth, overturn laundry baskets in search of an outfit, eat breakfast, pack lunch and drive 12 miles to school before 8:40 A.M. Later, McCartney sings, surreally, “somebody spoke and I went into a dream,” which is framed by a spiraling chorus (can’t you hear the ahhhHhhhhHahhhhahahah that follows in your head?).

In “Across the Universe,” the mysterious guitarist, Jo-Jo, plays the sorrowful tune of “A Day in the Life” during one of the movie’s most suspenseful moments. What we hear is actually world-renowned guitarist Jeff Beck’s live version of the song. Beck draws out the first notes and then builds to a dramatic crescendo that matches the scene’s climax.

Without McCartney’s paced verses, Beck’s performance and the movie’s action leave the message of the song piercingly clear: every day, while we go through our routines, reading about other people’s tragedies on the newspaper, we never stop to think that they could one day become our own.