A Double-layered Nostalgia: ‘The Sixties,’ the Iraq War and The Beatles in Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007)

In 2007 Revolution Studios released renowned theatre and opera director Julie Taymor’s Beatles musical Across the UniverseTaymor and fellow writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais used 33 Beatles’ songs to form a story of young bohemians in New York during the Vietnam War era. [1]  Across the Universe received praise for its attempt at reinvigorating the musical genre, its strong artistic visual style, and its reinterpretation of The Beatles’ music. It did, however, receive large amounts of criticism for a facile political stance and a mawkishly conventional nostalgia for the 1960s. One reviewer went so far as to describe it as a “god-awful shopping-mall rehash of the late ‘60s… The story is all protests, rainbow crash pads, and solarized acid trips, a Hairy cliché fest.” [2] While the film is indeed full of rainbow-styled sequences, in line with Taymor’s rich visual aesthetic, its clichéd rendition of the 1960s raises interesting questions about the intersection of popular music, nostalgia and audience participation. Against this line of critique, this paper will argue that Across the Universe’s nostalgic work is much more complex and should not simply be dismissed as a brightly coloured 1960s flick with a Beatles soundtrack.

Across the Universe adeptly redeploys the cultural weight that has accreted around The Beatles’ musical catalogue to reinvent the past and re-imagine the present. This is largely achieved through the absence of the actual historical band from the diegesis and soundtrack, either in the form of original Beatles recordings, actors playing The Beatles, or any cameo by the two remaining band members, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. Taymor steers clear of the original Beatles and their recordings, enabling the film to reinvent, not reinterpret, the 1960s and make connections to the present day. Taymor herself has spoken about this two-sided operation; on the one hand, she says she chose Beatles songs that “best told the story of a generation and a time,” and on the other, she felt “you constantly have to revisit these stories in order to reflect upon your present and really think, ‘What is it that’s different now?’” [3] Taymor uses The Beatles as both a marker for a particular ‘Sixties’ located in the past and as a tool for reflecting on and re-imagining the present. [4] It is precisely because the actual historical band is absent from the diegesis that Taymor can reinvent ‘The Sixties’ her way.

This paper examines the nostalgic work of Across the Universe and investigates how the film uses The Beatles’ music, with all its popular cultural associations, to activate political debate and enhance audience participation in the film. It explores to what end The Beatles and the associated concepts of ‘Youth’, ‘The Sixties’ and the Vietnam War are used by Taymor to reinvent the decade and to animate discourses about contemporary youth and the recent Iraq War. [5] I argue that the film’s very specific use of The Beatles’ music enables a “productive nostalgia” [6] that encourages self-conscious spectatorship, as it elicits the audience’s active participation in the film’s utopian drive. The paper begins by discussing how Across the Universe fits in with long-standing debates on nostalgia and its connections with music, challenging Jameson’s idea of the depthless nostalgia film. I will then trace how the removal of The Beatles is central to the film’s nostalgic work, presenting a Beatles-tinted ‘Sixties Youth’ and Vietnam War that makes connections to contemporary youth and the Iraq War. Finally, I examine how the film’s utopian drive interweaves with its productive nostalgia.

On one level, Across the Universe displays characteristics of conventional nostalgia in both its longing for a particular time, the 1960s, and its sentimental imagination of that time as ‘The Sixties’. Fredric Jameson has argued that nostalgia films displace ‘real’ history “through stylistic convention, conveying “pastness” by the glossy qualities of the image” and “the attributes of fashion.” [7] The archetypal characters, costumes, and themes in Across the Universe are used to construct the ‘1960-ness’ and ‘The Sixties’ in this way, and provide much of the fodder for critics of the film who dismiss it as another sentimental re-presentation of a well-covered decade. Most nostalgia literature that follows Jameson tends to focus on the loss of memory and historicity, arguing nostalgia distorts notions of historical time and romanticizes the past. Svetlana Boym is symptomatic of this view when she writes: “Nostalgia… is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” [8] These perspectives often frame nostalgia as an essentially negative and regressive affliction, yet I follow Michael Pickering and Emily Keightley’s assertion that nostalgia possesses numerous manifestations that include both progressive and regressive stances. [9] This allows a broader conceptualisation of nostalgia films, one that considers how their desire to return to an idealized past evokes reimaginings of the present moment and the possibility for renewal in the future. Nostalgia can therefore be both melancholic and utopian. [10] Rethinking the functionality of nostalgia in this way allows a fuller appreciation and understanding of the depth of Across the Universe’s nostalgic work and encourages recognition of its potential for active spectatorship.

The Beatles as ‘Sixties’ Signifier and Cross-Generational Language
Across the Universe is part of a cycle of millennial jukebox musicals that recycle the songbook of pop and rock artists. [11] What is peculiar about Across the Universe, however, is that it portrays a time and place when The Beatles were at the height of their fame, yet the filmic diegesis takes place in a world where there is no such band at all. Taymor and her writers, Richard Clement and Ian La Frenais, wrote a narrative based on the succession of 33 specifically chosen Beatles songs, manipulating the music and lyrics for their own ends. The film’s timeline could be said to sit somewhere in the late 1960s, as scenes include the 1967 Detroit riots and 1968 Columbia University protests. The music stems directly from the diegetic world of the film, and the musical numbers exist in service of its narrative structure, rather than as divergences from it; Taymor describes it as a “rock opera”. [12] Fictional depictions of, or historical references to, The Beatles do not occur in the film, only puns on song titles in dialogue and character names (“Dear Prudence” is sung to Prudence (T.V. Carpio), “Hey Jude” sung to Jude (Jim Sturgess), and so on).

Removing The Beatles and their original recordings grants the film both freedoms and constraints in crafting its own version of ‘The Sixties’. First, it enables their music and lyrics to be rearranged to fit the purposes of the story and the continuous music-video flow of the film. This is part of the film’s innovation in that it uses “sometimes sparser arrangements of Beatles’ songs to explore emotion through moments of realism throughout the narrative, rather than reserve such moments merely within the spectacle of a short musical number situated between plot developments.” [13] Reinterpreting and rerecording The Beatles’ music, however, opens up a whole raft of musicological, historical, and social associations that cannot be easily avoided by the filmmaker. Music producer and composer Elliot Goldenthal eloquently describes the musical ‘memory’ of The Beatles: “Everybody knows The Beatles’ music so well, it’s almost like having a ghost in the room. All the licks that they played, the specific guitar fills, the drum fills – everybody fills those in when they hear the songs.” [14] Taking advantage of this ‘ghostly’ subtext, most songs in Across the Universe maintain the same melodic line as the originals. However, almost half the songs are sung by women, and all use different accompaniment. Because the rearranged songs can never be entirely dislocated from their original recordings, the film relies on the audience’s contribution to ‘filling in’ the melodies and remembering the lyrics. In this way, Across the Universe could be said to align with Rick Altman’s understanding of folk musicals which portray a mythicized version of the past and use popular songs already known to the audience, therefore “permitting them to hum along or even anticipate the words on the screen.” [15] This encourages the active spectatorship in the film, as the audience participates in creating the film world through these musical signifiers.

There is more to the complex cultural signifier of ‘The Beatles’ than just aural memories of their music, however. As Richard Dyer argues, stars are images made up of multiple media texts. [16] The historical Beatles’ recordings are concretely and historically located on specific albums and are motivated and inflected with messages and themes from the band members at the time of recording. The Beatles are among the highest selling artists of all time, consistently appearing in ‘Best Of’ lists compiled by music publications and industry bodies, and have wide global cultural recognition across generations through their continued appearance in popular culture references in film, television, art, literature and so on. [17] In addition to generations of pop and rock fans with a lived experience of listening to their music when it was first released, their continued popularity throughout the 1990s and 2000s, largely through regular plays on ‘Classic Hits’ and ‘Golden Oldies’ radio stations, and the success of the 1 album released on iTunes in 2000, makes them a widely shared cultural reference point for both older and younger generations. [18] While the film was rightly labelled as ‘baby boomer’ nostalgia due to its appeal to that generation’s coming of age during the 1960s, technological changes to the media environment mean that access to the entire history of popular music has become the norm, and, as a result, contemporary audiences have become increasingly familiar with the music of previous generations, not least through screen texts. These changes include the development and wide uptake of mp3 technology, and the subsequent file-sharing and downloading culture on the internet; the invention of the iPod and its creation of shuffle culture and the personalized portable radio; the rise of global reality talent show franchises such as Idol (2001-), X-Factor (2004-), and The Voice (2010-) that regularly cover ‘golden oldies’, ‘pop classics’ and musical theatre numbers; American mega-hit teen television show Glee (FOX 2009-2015) selling albums and concert tickets off its own characters’ covers of 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s chart hits; and the widespread and instantaneous availability of huge swaths of musical culture via search-on-demand platforms like YouTube and Spotify. These changes have engendered a culture of timeless music consumption, a trend particularly true for young people who were early adopters of new technologies like file-sharing, downloading, and digital streaming of music. [19] Across the Universe capitalizes on this context of increased popular music consumption for its marketing, promotion, and audience engagement. While the original song recordings have been heard millions of times over, there is still potential profit to be made from a feature length film based on their lyrics and the following soundtrack, limited edition bonus soundtrack and DVD package from the film. [20] Cross-marketing and referencing between these different media products released at the time of Across the Universe creates an atmosphere that enhances not only the cultural discourses and ideologies surrounding ‘The Beatles’, but also points to their potential as a money-earning enterprise be they dead or alive, together or separate, or absent altogether, as in Across the Universe.

In addition to the economic benefits of The Beatles’ star image, the film relies on the collective cultural memory of The Beatles in order to perform its nostalgic work. As Oliver Gruner argues, The Beatles’ “spectral presence manifests itself as a set of ideals and values towards which all of the protagonists strive”. [21] This is precisely the film’s strength, in deploying these associations to reimagine the past and in so doing, to interrogate its contemporary moment and ponder the future. The only way Across the Universe’s multi-layered meanings and narrative can be picked up by the viewer is through familiarity with the historical Beatles’ songbook and star image. Across the Universe uses ‘The Beatles’ as cultural memory to demarcate a particular ‘Sixties’ located in the past and as a tool for reflecting on and re-imagining the present. The cultural memory of ‘The Beatles’, manufactured in part from the band’s success as musicians as well as their status as popular cultural icons of the late twentieth century, informs the nostalgic work, and the utopian drive of Across the Universe. The actual historical Beatles are absent because Taymor only needs to use the music and lyrics to create the layering of past and present in the film. Jeremy Varon likens The Beatles’ music to “an enduring, common poetic language” of Western culture. [22] Taymor seems to be employing this idea of their music as a common, shared language to connect with and speak to contemporary themes and audiences.

To include the historical band, as either fictional characters or as cameos, would disrupt this connection and make the film more about the musicians themselves than about the ‘message’ in their music. Using the songs as the basis for a film narrative and dialogue dislodges or disrupts associations with the context, rather than the musicality, of the originals. It means the songs can make connections to the 1960s, but also appear timeless. Yet, using their music and lyrics still enables a connection to the historical time when they dominated the popular music scene and allows Taymor the flexibility to construct her own, Beatles-tinted ‘Sixties’ that reprocesses and re-imagines the present. She does this through connecting concepts associated with ‘The Beatles’ and the 1960s, particularly ideas about ‘Youth’ and the Vietnam War, to create her version of ‘The Sixties’ that connects to contemporary young people and the recent Iraq War.

Capitalizing on ‘Sixties Youth’ for a New Generation
Across the Universe is part of an overall cultural practice of producing artificial memories about ‘Sixties Youth’ that are adopted into contemporary youthful identity. The cultural concept of ‘Youth’, as both a collection of young people and a time in one’s life, is constantly being redefined and mediated through various popular cultural products, and has multiple definitions across race, class, gender, nationality and cultural group. Lawrence Grossberg argues these multiple definitions are reconstituted in the musical and visual images of cinema at the intersection of youth and rock cultures. [23] The nexus between popular music and youth culture began with a cycle of 1950s youth-oriented films that featured rock ‘n’ roll music. [24] These films “laid the foundations for the ‘teen-pic’ formula of youth-oriented commercial cinema,” a strategy that reached its economic height during the 1980s with commercially successful mainstream films with equally successful soundtracks such as Flash Dance (Adrian Lyne, 1983), Footloose (Herbert Ross, 1984), The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (Hughes, 1986) and Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino, 1987). [25]

Across the Universe taps into typical representations of ‘The Sixties’ and ‘youthful awakening’ common of Hollywood cinema. During the 1980s, baby boomers became the dominant producers of media texts as well as their main consumers. Faye Woods argues the teen-centred nostalgic 1950s and 1960s films produced at this time were reflective of the boomer’s desire to “reproduce and consume their own youth.” [26] Perhaps because of the increased focus on this decade, as well as the social, political and ideological upheavals of the time period, youthful becoming and transgression are strongly associated with the 1960s. Adolescent becoming is an important theme in representations of the 1960s more generally as “the Sixties vintage remains the archetype – the most glorious of all possible youths.” [27] Taymor’s reinvention of ‘The Sixties’ is an attempt to reinvigorate contemporary young people through an endorsement of this archetypal ‘Sixties Youth’ that incorporates youthful awakening.

Across the Universe creates this archetypal ‘Sixties Youth’ through a pastiche of countercultural visual imagery and characters who all struggle with personal identity, expression, and emotional development. Liverpool dockworker Jude and Princeton drop-out Max (Joe Anderson) bond over their shared rejection of society and move to New York to join a free-wheeling bohemian group of singers, musicians and artists. JoJo (Martin Luther), an African-American guitar player, leaves Detroit after his brother is killed by the National Guard in the uprising of 1967, while Prudence, an Ohio cheerleader, runs away from home as she struggles with her sexuality. Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and Jo-Jo work in an underground bar and create experimental music, Jude works on pop art symbols and magazine posters, and Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) starts work at a radical newspaper in the city after her highschool boyfriend is killed in Vietnam. The characters take part in anti-war protests, but after Max is drafted to the army and Martin Luther King is assassinated, the idealism of the period ends. Lucy and Jude get caught up in the Columbia University protests of 1968 before Jude is deported back to England. Equilibrium is restored when Jude reunites with the group and rekindles his relationship with Lucy in the finale song, “All You Need is Love,” ending the film with a clichéd Sixties ‘free love’ motto.

Examining the film’s prosaic storyline, we could legitimately label Across the Universe “unadulterated white, middle-class baby boomer nostalgia,” as it indeed was by some critics. [28] While it is near impossible for the film to avoid this interpretation at first glance, closer inspection reveals Across the Universe has more complex aims than presenting boomers with a colourful version of their past through the familiar pathway of a Beatles soundtrack. The ideological positioning of the film, as well as the removal of the band, means it can create generational identification not only with boomers, but between contemporary young people and the film’s depiction of a Beatles’ version of ‘Sixties Youth’. Baby boomers that grew up listening to The Beatles can identify with the characters of Across the Universe because of the specific generational, social, and cultural milieu invoked through the music. However, the absence of the historical Beatles and the rearrangement and reinterpretation of their music by young actors in a new narrative aims to use that same music to speak to contemporary young people. Woods calls this nostalgic phenomenon a ‘dual-focus’ narrative, where teen-focused texts that portray the adolescence of past generations can appeal to both a younger and older demographic. [29] The film attempts to cover both generations, in both its portrayal and appeal, to “induce nostalgia, whatever one’s generation, for one’s own youth.” [30] As outlined in the previous section, young people now have an unprecedented interest in, and knowledge of, past popular music. This can manifest in a nostalgia for past musical cultures, even though they may not have lived through the time period during which the music was made. [31] Andy Bennett has suggested that younger audiences watching 1960s and 1970s films experience “received nostalgia” where “with no physical relationship to, or memory of, the rock era of the late 1960s and early 1970s [they] aesthetically re-construct this era via the medium of music”. [32] Nostalgia in Across the Universe is therefore a two-sided operation: Taymor must inevitably use a reinvention of ‘Sixties Youth’ to connect with contemporary young people and the present day, and The Beatles’ music is the anchor to which both young and old can identify.

The two-sided nostalgia in Across the Universe brings up questions of cultural history and personal memory, as both younger and older generations watching Across the Universe are constantly reconstituting their own ideas about the general concept of ‘Youth’, their own adolescence and what constitutes ‘Sixties Youth’. Cinema constantly reinvents, reinterprets, and re-presents versions of ‘Sixties Youth’ for generations of filmgoers in a constant wheel of personal identification and recognition of their own youth and what being young means in Western culture. Alison Landsberg’s discussion of “prosthetic memories” is useful here to consider the way that ideas of ‘Sixties Youth’ are adopted by young audiences and incorporated into their own personality, even though they have not lived through the time period. Landsberg defines prosthetic memories as those which do not come from lived experience, but circulate publicly and are experienced within one’s own body through cultural technologies such as cinema, television, and music. [33] Cinema, as a mass-marketing institution, is a central site for the production and dissemination of prosthetic memories, creating ‘experiences’ for cinema-goers who then take on these experiences as their own. [34] Across the Universe, as part of a wider media environment that circulates prosthetic memories of ‘The Sixties’, youth culture, and the experiences of the Vietnam War, is part of a larger collective re-imagining and re-invention of cultural memories and histories that are incorporated into identity and used to make sense of the present. Importantly, Landsberg does not discriminate between prosthetic memory and lived experience, citing that because memories are always public and shared, both are central to our identity and our understanding of the world. [35] ‘Memories’ of the past represented in Across the Universe circulate within cultural and social arenas and are constantly reorganized, recombined, re-evaluated and represented in order to form collective and personal identity, and organize the present day for the individual. Criticism of Across the Universe’s glossing over of the past stems from a fear of ‘un-realistic’ histories becoming part of personal and national memories, without recognition of how the film can stimulate identity formation.

Taymor seeks to mobilise circulating prosthetic memories about ‘Sixties Youth’ to invigorate an active spectatorship in the audience. She makes her intentions for the film explicit when she says, “I really want young people to see the passion in this movie – to see with what fervour these characters invested themselves into social movements as well as self-exploration.” [36] She builds on this for her own narrative and ideological concerns; namely that she wants contemporary young people to adopt and incorporate this ultimate ‘Sixties Youth’ into their own identity and therefore participate in the film’s nostalgic and utopian project. A central element of this ‘Sixties Youth’ that links Across the Universe to both the past and the present is the depiction of the Vietnam War.

Protesting Vietnam or Iraq?
The Vietnam War is a cornerstone in Taymor’s construction of ‘Sixties Youth’ and drives much of the narrative of Across the Universe. The war is also an inescapable element of Hollywood representations of ‘The Sixties’, ‘Sixties Youth’ and the film’s productive nostalgia. Eben J. Muse argues the Vietnam War entered Hollywood’s production line “as part of a complex recipe meant to make it easy to digest” because Hollywood was “in the business of producing consensus narratives – stories that many audiences will find palatable.” [37] Muse argues Hollywood’s strategy for narrativizing the Vietnam War highlighted the ‘good bits’, such as sexual freedom and idealism, with rock music as a central connecting thread. Even in dark Vietnam films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), music carries great narrative weight, both diegetically and nondiegetically, in establishing historical setting, expressing character emotions, or providing momentary release from the drudgeries of war for the characters on screen. [38] Rock music has therefore become essential to a stylized cinematic depiction of the Vietnam War. It also serves the Hollywood’s financial goals by making Vietnam War films both pleasurable and popular. Industrial cinema has no authority in the experience of the Vietnam War, so rock and roll provides integration, through the socially authentic voice of popular music, with the commodity culture of the record industry. [39] Hence we can see The Beatles music offers an extremely recognizable stylistic trope of the Vietnam War film, as well as a culturally palatable and economically beneficial medium to represent the war in Across the Universe.

The Vietnam War is also a major narrative engine for the film: Lucy joins a young radical movement after her high-school boyfriend is killed and her brother Max is drafted; Max unsuccessfully attempts to avoid the draft, then returns mentally scarred from the fighting; and Lucy’s involvement in the anti-war movement causes the breakdown in her and Jude’s relationship. Across the Universe certainly includes the markers of a stylized presentation of the Vietnam era that Muse identifies, aligning with his argument that the war itself has to fit into the nostalgic vision: a key bonding moment comes when the characters join a peaceful protest march together, walking arm in arm in the sunshine. However, not all war-related scenes convey a cosy countercultural bonding, and many are more complex than simply giving a popular music voice to an unpopular war. Connecting the music to its original social, historical and cultural context brings up sentiments located in the original recordings, sentiments Taymor seeks to capitalize on in her invigoration of contemporary young people.

Taymor’s investment in the politics of the film, her tacit support of the countercultural movement through her characters’ sentiments and the anti-war stance of the film, is most concentrated in the “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” number. The originally sexy song lyrics are sung by a frightening Uncle Sam “I Want You For the U.S. Army” poster. Using Taymor’s distinctive mix of theatrical, animation, puppetry and music-video aesthetics, the number sees Uncle Sam’s pointing finger reach out from the poster and drag Max into an aggressive medical examination dance number with army officer. The song ends with the fresh recruits carrying a giant Statue of Liberty through the Vietnam jungle as they sing ‘she’s so heavy’. As the most overtly anti-imperialist sequence in the whole film, “I Want You” sums up Taymor’s obvious objections to the Vietnam War and the drafting system. The film was also released at a time when the Iraq War was dominating news broadcasts, headlines and public discussions, and numerous anti-war protests were occurring around the world. Filming and production of Across the Universe began in 2005, two years after the initial U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Two years later when screening began in 2007, the U.S. recorded the largest number of deaths since the invasion and 62 per cent of Americans were opposed to the war. [40] While there are huge historical, social, and cultural differences between the America that went to Vietnam and the one that led the invasion of Iraq, not to mention a wide gap in total casualty figures, Taymor frequently hinted at connections between the two in publicity interviews. [41] While Across the Universe makes no direct or indirect references to the Iraq War, Taymor commented that “that era is explicitly important to our time now” during a behind-the-scenes interview. [42]

On one level, the possible collapse of the Iraq War into the Vietnam War can be understood as a symptom of the postmodern waning of historicity, an inability to deal with the present moment and are unable to locate ourselves with respect to history. [43] While Jameson would agree with this loss of a fixed historical object, and the historicizing of the present through nostalgia films, I find Amelia DeFalco’s argument that these criticisms presuppose the existence of a verifiable ‘historical reality’ more convincing. History only ever exists in the present moment and is constantly redefined, reworked, and explored through collective and personal memory. We can never fully experience ‘history’ as a stable and identifiable object. Across the Universe cannot and does not set out to produce a ‘realistic’ presentation of the 1960s. Instead it reinvents the 1960s as a version of ‘The Sixties’ that attempts to connect to contemporary youthful audiences and the American socio-political environment. Across the Universe is therefore a productive piece of nostalgia that uses stylized understandings of the 1960s to raise questions about a contemporary political issue. DeFalco argues that nostalgia stirs up notions of history and reality, encouraging self-conscious spectatorship by pointing out the endless multitude of historical experiences. [44] Across the Universe does this by focusing on personal stories, emotional troubles, political activism and belief, rather than closely examining international and internal political situations, presidents or defence policies. Taymor seems to believe that contemporary young people were apathetic towards the Iraq War in an interview with The New York Times in 2007: “What we’ve shown on screen is coming out of an era of such trauma… It’s not different from now. But how we’re dealing with it is very different. Where are the protest songs?” [45] Her nostalgia for a particular ‘Sixties Youth’ privileges active counter-cultural political awareness and self-exploration in an attempt to activate these ideas in contemporary young people. In this sense, we can read Across the Universe as a progressive nostalgic piece that encourages audience participation through its reliance on prior knowledge of The Beatles’ songbook, and an examination of the contemporary political moment.

Across the Universe’s Utopian Drive
Across the Universe reunites its band of characters and resolves the love story between Jude and Lucy with the finale number “All You Need Is Love.” Jude, Sadie, Max, JoJo, and Prudence perform the number on a New York rooftop, echoing the historical Beatles final live performance on the rooftop of the Apple Corps building in London on 30 January 1969. The number is a typical merger of entertainment, utopianism and celebration of heterosexuality that scholars have identified as symptomatic of the American film musical. [46] Musical utopias are often expressed as solidarity between an individual and a community around a shared group of lyrics, dance steps, or music, much like Jude and his troupe already know the words to “All You Need Is Love”. Musicals seduce the audience through the hope of inclusion within a community via knowing the words to and singing along with a final song. In becoming part of a community, and sharing the feelings of that community, the audience can identify with the feelings portrayed. [47] On one level, the audience can see the inclusion of Jude into the bohemian New York community as representative of the inclusion of the British Beatles into American cultural folk lore. On another level, the sing-a-long quality of “All You Need is Love” (one of the refrains is ‘everybody now’), tempts the audience to also burst into song and join this bohemian community themselves. The familiarity and popularity of The Beatles’ music allows the audience to participate in this finale, and the whole film, because of their knowledge of the songs.

Jameson would argue that representations of utopia are part of entertainment’s need to seduce the masses through the promise of a better world. He states that “works of mass culture cannot be ideological without at one and the same time being implicitly or explicitly Utopian as well: they cannot manipulate unless they offer some genuine shred of content as a fantasy bribe to the public about to be so manipulated.” [48] Across the Universe’s utopian tendencies do more than use the familiarity of The Beatles’ music and the pleasure of connecting with a free-wheeling ‘Sixties’ mentality to perpetuate the consumption of mass-mediated Beatles paraphernalia, however. As Dyer has argued, musicals don’t necessarily present models of utopian worlds, but instead offer an idea of what utopia would feel like through the ecstatic, intense and ‘pure’ emotions embodied by the characters as they perform the musical numbers. [49] What is central to the utopianism embodied in Across the Universe is not just entertainment and inclusion with a community per se, but an activation of a ‘Sixties Youth’ sensibility located in a Beatles version of the past, a ‘Youth’ that embodies Dyer’s sensibilities of utopia: energy, abundance, intensity, transparency, and community. [50]

As I have argued earlier, removing the historical Beatles and using their music as dialogue is central to Across the Universe’s construction of ‘Sixties Youth’ and its attempts to connect with contemporary young audiences. Musical and cultural knowledge of The Beatles’ music allows the audience feelings of solidarity with Jude, with the bohemian friendship group, and the ‘Sixties Youth’ they embody. This knowledge also allows the audience feelings of solidarity with the filmmakers and those around them in the cinema singing along to The Beatles’ songs. Hence, while the film presents a nostalgia for a utopian ‘Sixties Youth’, it also presents a nostalgia or longing for belonging. Belonging to a cultural group with knowledge of The Beatles’ songs allows the audience to participate in this film on one level with adopting the characters’ sensibilities, and on another level in its proactive nostalgic reimaging of the contemporary countercultural movement. Knowledge of The Beatles’ music allows the audience to participate in Taymor’s nostalgic representation of ‘The Sixties’, as the audience makes the necessary links to the associated concepts of ‘Youth,’ the Vietnam War and the Iraq War. The use of The Beatles’ music in Across the Universe therefore ensures the active participation of the audience in the film; in its reinvention of the past to make sense of the present.

Across the Universe can be understood on one level through conventional notions of nostalgia as the sentimental longing for and evocation of the past. Taymor uses the popular cultural associations of ‘The Beatles’ to reinvent the 1960s as her own Beatles version of ‘The Sixties’. This ‘Sixties’, however, relies on a particular construction of ‘Youth’ and the Vietnam War which is overlaid with ideas about contemporary young people and the Iraq War. In this sense the film performs postmodern understandings of the nostalgia film as nostalgia for the present. Removing the historical Beatles from the diegesis allows the film to connect to the present by using The Beatles’ music as a tool for communicating across generations. This participation in the film relies on the audience’s knowledge of The Beatles’ songbook and in this way, performs certain utopian functions of the film musical in incorporating the audience into a community. Across the Universe’s active nostalgia for the past and reimagining of the present demonstrates how contemporary film musicals can provide areas for a self-conscious film spectator to revisit and reinterpret past events, make sense of contemporary historical and cultural situations, and generate forms of identity through cinema and popular music.


[1] Across the Universe uses 33 Beatles’ songs altogether, 30 songs have vocals, and three are instrumental. 29 songs were performed in the film’s narrative, while “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, sung by Bono and The Edge, plays over the end credits.
[2] Owen Gleiberman, “Across the Universe (2007)” [Review], Entertainment Weekly, 12 September, 2007. http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20056210,00.html (accessed 5 December, 2014).
[3] Taymor interviewed in “Across the Universe: Production Notes,” Interviews with Julie Taymor and the film producers, Across the Universe, directed by Julie Taymor (Sony Pictures Entertainment: Australia, 2007), DVD.
[4] Note that throughout this paper I refer to the ‘Sixties’ constructed in Across the Universe as a particular Beatles-tinted ‘Sixties’, something very different from the existential realities of the historical decade between 1950 and 1960, and other cultural representations of that decade as ‘The Sixties’.
[5] In the interests of clarity, I want to make clear I conceptualize The Beatles in three ways in this paper. The first is the ‘historical Beatles’, or the actual historical band The Beatles, made up of real-life musicians John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, who dominated popular music charts from their formation in 1960 to their break-up in 1970. This historical Beatles includes their original music (including sheet music and arrangements), lyrics and recordings. Only two Beatles were alive in 2007 when Across the Universe was released, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. The second conceptualization is the ‘fictional Beatles,’ a fictional portrayal or mention of the band, notably absent from Across the Universe, where actors would play the band members, or characters may mention them or listen to their music. The third conceptualization is ‘The Beatles’ as cultural memory and this includes the huge web of cultural and historical associations as well as the mass mediated representations of the band members, their music, and their lyrics.
[6] Amelia DeFalco, “A Double Edged Longing: Nostalgia, Melodrama, and Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven,” Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies Vol. 5 (2004), p. 31.
[7] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London: Verso, 1991), p. 19.
[8] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. xiii.
[9] Michael Pickering and Emily Keightley, “The Modalities of Nostalgia,” Current Sociology Vol. 54, No. 6 (2006), p. 921.
[10] Ibid.
[11] British stage musical Mamma Mia! (Catherine Johnson, 1999), based on the music and lyrics of 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA, is credited with popularising the jukebox genre as a wave of musicals followed in its wake. Jukebox film musicals of the 2000s and 2010s continued to mine popular music of all genres and time periods for the basis of their narratives; from film adaptations of stage musicals such as Romance & Cigarettes (John Turturro, 2005), Mamma Mia!(Phyllida Lloyd, 2008), Rock of Ages (Adam Shankman, 2012), Sunshine on Leith (Dexter Fletcher, 2013), and Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, 2014), to integrated musicals that used a collection of pop dance hits, such as TV movie Lovestruck: The Musical (Sanaa Hamri, 2013) and Walking on Sunshine (Giwa and Pasquini, 2014). See Sarah Larson “Let’s Rock: In Defense of Jukebox Musicals,” The New Yorker, 22 July 2014.
http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/lets-rock-defense-jukebox-musicals (accessed 15 January, 2018).
[12] Quoted in Laurel Fuson and Sophia Yan, “An Interview with Director Julie Taymor.” The Oberlin Review, 21 September 2007. http://www.oberlin.edu/stupub/ocreview/2007/09/21/arts/An_Interview_with_Director.html (accessed 15 January, 2018).
[13] Stephanie Fremaux, “The Beatles’ Songs in Across the Universe,” in Contemporary Musical Film, eds. K.J. Donnelly and Beth Carroll (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), p. 83.
[14] Elliot Goldenthal interviewed in “Across the Universe: Production Notes”.
[15] Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), p. 321.
[16] Richard Dyer, Stars. New Edition With a Supplementary Chapter and Biobliogrpahy by Paul McDonald. (London: British Film Institute, 1998), p. 2-3.
[17] The Beatles are the highest selling artists of all time, with 600 million units (records, tapes, and CDs). See Ralf von Appen and Andre Doehring, “Nevermind The Beatles, Here’s Exile 61 and Nico: ‘The Top 100 Records of All Time’ – A Canon of Pop and Rock Albums from a Sociological and an Aesthetic Perspective,” Popular Music Vol. 25, No. 1 (2006), p. 22, and Russell Hotten, “The Beatles at 50: From Fab Four to Fabulously Wealthy.” BBC News, 4 October 2012. http://www.bbc.com/news/business-19800654 (accessed 15 January, 2018).
[18] The Beatles’ 1 album became one of the fastest-selling albums of all time. It collated 27 Beatles’ singles which reached No. 1 in the U.S. or U.K. charts. 1 was still selling close to 1000 copies in the U.S. in 2015. See Billboard, “Albums That Sold 1 Million In One Week,” 23 October, 2012 https://www.billboard.com/photos/426851/albums-that-sold-1-million-in-one-week (accessed 15 January, 2018) and Hugh McIntyre, “The Beatles’ ‘1’ Album Still Sells 1,000 Copies Per Week – 15 Years After Release,” Forbes, 23 March, 2015 http://www.forbes.com/sites/hughmcintyre/2015/03/23/the-beatles-1-album-still-sells-1000-copies-per-week-almost-15-years-in/#39999b9659ea (accessed 15 January 2018).
[19] Jean Hogarty, Popular Music and Retro Culture in the Digital Era (New York; Oxon: Routledge, 2016), p. 33.
[20] Across the Universe occupies a position that is also complemented by the release of The Beatles’ retrospective “LOVE” album (2006) and Cirque Du Soleil show, Paul McCartney’s album “Memory Almost Full” (2007) and a John Lennon tribute album “Instant Karma: The Campaign to Save Darfur” (2007) which featured contemporary performers singing original tracks. See Jeff Smith’s discussion of soundtrack albums within schemes of production and marketing. Jeff Smith, The Sounds of Commerce: Marketing Popular Film Music (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 154.
[21] Oliver Gruner, Screening the Sixties: Hollywood Cinema and the Politics of Memory (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), p. 175.
[22] Jeremy Varon, “Long Live Lennon! Lennon Is Dead! The Affirmative Character of Post-Sixties Idealism,” The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture Vol. 1, No. 1 (2008), p. 70.
[23] Lawrence Grossberg, “Cinema, Postmodernity and Authenticity,” in Movie Music, the Film Reader, ed. Kay Dickinson (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 84-6.
[24] Mervyn Cooke cites The Wild One (Laslo Benedek, 1953) as the first “generation outrage” film that promoted a direct link between popular music, social problems, and youth culture. This lead to a cycle of ‘jukebox’ or rock ‘n’ roll films in the 1950s including The Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955), Rock Around the Clock (Fred F. Sears, 1956), Don’t Knock the Rock (Sears, 1956), The Girl Can’t Help It (Frank Tashlin, 1956), Rock Pretty Baby (Richard Bartlett, 1956) and Shake, Rattle and Rock! (Edward L. Cahn, 1956), among others. Mervyn Cooke, A History of Film Music (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p. 398. For a discussion of early jukebox films, also see David E. James, Rock ‘N’ Film: Cinema’s Dance with Popular Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), and Richard Staehling, “From Rock Around the Clock to The Trip: The Truth About Teen Movies,” In Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System, eds. Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1975), pp. 220-251.
[25] Mervyn Cooke, A History of Film Music, p. 399.
[26] Faye Woods, “Nostalgia, Music and the Television Past Revisited in American Dreams,” Music, Sound & the Moving Image Vol. 2, No. 1 (2008), p. 28.
[27] Varon, “Long Live Lennon! Lennon Is Dead!”, p. 71.
[28] Stephen Holden, “Lovers in the ’60s Take a Magical Mystery Tour” [Review], The New York Times, 14 September, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/14/movies/14univ.html?pagewanted=all (accessed 5 December, 2014).
[29] Woods, “Nostalgia, Music and the Television Past Revisited in American Dreams,” p. 30.
[30] Varon, “Long Live Lennon! Lennon Is Dead!,” p. 71.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Andy Bennett, ““Things They Do Look Awful Cool”: Ageing Rock Icons and Contemporary Youth Audiences,” Leisure/Loisir Vol. 32, No. 2. (2008), p. 275.
[33] Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 20.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Taymor interviewed in “Across the Universe: Production Notes”.
[37] Eben J. Muse, The Land of Nam: The Vietnam War in American Film (Maryland: Scarecrow Press Inc., 1995), p. 79.
[38] Good examples of this include the soldiers singing the “Mickey Mouse Club Theme Song” in Full Metal Jacket or goofing out to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” in Apocalypse Now.
[39] See David E. James, “Rock and Roll in Representations of the Invasion of Vietnam,” Representations 29 (1990), p. 78-98.
[40] 904 U.S. military casualties in Iraq were recorded in 2007, the largest number since 2003. A combined CBS News and New York Times opinion poll of 1035 adults recorded 62 per cent thought invading Iraq was a mistake. 60 per cent thought members of the Bush administration intentionally misled the public in making the case for war. See iCasualties.org, “Iraq Coalition Casualty Count,” 2009. http://icasualties.org/ (accessed 15 January 2018) and U.S. Department of Defense “DoD Casualty Reports” http://www.defenselink.mil/ news/casualty.pdf (accessed 14 April, 2014). Polling Report Inc., “CBS News/New York Times Poll Sept. 4-8, 2007. N=1,035 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3” http://www.pollingreport.com/iraq.htm (accessed 14 April, 2014) and New York Times, The, “The New York Times CBS Poll: September 4-8, 2007” http://www.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/national/09102007_pollresults.pdf (accessed 15 January 2018).
[41] Between 19 March 2003 and 31 August 2010, Operation Iraqi Freedom recorded 4,410 U.S. military casualties, while the total number of U.S. military casualties for Vietnam was 58,220. U.S. Department of Defense, “Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) U.S. Casualty Status,” 10 April, 2014. http://www.defense.gov/news/casualty.pdf (accessed 14 April, 2014). The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration “Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) Vietnam Conflict Extract Data File,” April 29, 2008. http://www.archives.gov/research/military/vietnam-war/casualty-statistics.html (accessed 14 April, 2014).
[42] Taymor interviewed in “Across the Universe Production Notes”.
[43] Edward R. O’Neill, “Traumatic Postmodern Histories: Velvet Goldmine’s Phantasmatic Testimonies,” Camera Obscura 19, no. 3 (2004): 158.
[44] DeFalco, “A Double Edged Longing,” 31-4.
[45] Taymor quoted in Sylviane Gold, “Re-Meet the Beatles through the Voices of a New Narrative,” The New York Times, 9 December, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/09/movies/moviesspecial/09Gold.html?pagewanted=all-title=Re-Meet (accessed 5 December, 2014).
[46] See Altman, The American Film Musical, and Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” MOVIE Vol. 24 (1977), pp. 2-13.
[47] Travis B. Malone, Crafting Utopia and Dystopia: Film Musicals from 1970-2002, Ph.D. thesis, (Ann Arbor, Ohio: Bowling Green State University, 2006). p. 75.
[48] Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” Social Text Vol. 1 (1979), p. 144.
[49] Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia,” p. 3.
[50] Ibid, p. 4-5.

About the Author

Phoebe Macrossan

About the Author

Phoebe Macrossan

Phoebe Macrossan is a Ph.D. candidate and tutor in film and media studies at UNSW Sydney. Her thesis investigates the utopian modalities of contemporary screened song across film, television, and video. Her research interests include musical film and television, music video, and celebrity studies. She is a founding member of the Sydney Screen Studies Network and currently the Postgraduate Executive Member for the Screen Studies Association of Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand (SSAAANZ).View all posts by Phoebe Macrossan →