The 1960s: Two Cinematic Views

Last weekend I saw two movies (I don't have kids): Across the Universe and Hairspray. I was dying to see one and had been hoping to avoid the other (I'm married). It occurs to me now (I'm a little slow on the uptake) that both movies were musicals, both visually adventurous, and both were painting a particular picture of a bygone era. Both pictures, however, were startlingly different in their approach. I actually left the theaters liking the one I expected to dislike and being mildly disappointed in the one I'd been dying to see. Go figure.

Hairspray is, in a sense, no surprise. It was originally scripted in 1988 by John Waters, providing Ricki Lake with a breakout role nearly twenty years ago. This one features the perky and irrepressible Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad. The film takes place in Baltimore, Maryland, circa 1962, and is built around the Corny Collins Show, a local dance show featuring the "nicest kids in town," a nicely ironic musical number tells us to set the general tone of the film. Once a month is "Negro Day," when the normal cast (including host Corky) cede the stage to an all black dancing troupe. Tracy makes it her goal to (a) join the cast of the show because she loves to dance and (b) "make every day Negro Day" because she's a fundamentally decent human being. Two problems with her plan: (a) she's overweight and (b) the TV producer is a racist. Hilarity ensues.

Across the Universe is a history of the 1960s through the music of the Beatles and the lens of a handful of young people coming of age. It's like A Hard Day's Night meets Rent. Liverpoolian Jude (get it? "Hey Jude"--hah!) leaves England in search of the father he's never met, who happens to do maintenance work on the campus of Princeton University. Jude meets his dad but, more importantly, meets Max (get it? "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"--hah!) and, soon enough, Max's sister Lucy (get it? "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"--last one, I promise). Jude and Max leave Princeton behind to live in the city with sexy Sadie, Jo Jo, Prudence and a bevy of other young bohemians, and when Lucy's Army boyfriend dies, she joins them. Jude and Lucy fall in love, but they have different visions of how to change the world: Lucy says she wants a revolution, while Jude thinks nothing's gonna change his world. Romantic complexity ensues.

It struck me as I watched Across the Universe that there's not nearly as much idolatry of the 1960s these days as I experienced growing up. The culture, in many ways, has moved on to the 1970s--That 70s Show enjoyed a long run on network television and dominates the rerun schedule where I live, and Momma Mia's theatrical ode to ABBA debuted long before Across the Universe was even an idea. But perhaps we now have enough distance from the 1960s to see it as more than its reductions. Hairspray makes a legitimate claim on the early 60s with Tracy's spunky, Sally Fieldesque can-do-ism changing Baltimore for the better. Tracy's mother, Edna, historically played by a man in drag (first Divine and now John Travolta in an uneven performance), keeps the mood constantly light and airy, and the wonderfully innocent Christopher Walken, who is clueless to the romantic manipulations of a brilliantly vampish Michelle Pfeiffer, keeps the laughs coming with his joke shop and his mattress made of whoopie cushions. By 1962 the Civil Rights Movement was in full force, a young, spunky, Sally Fieldesque president and first lady were in the White House, the Beatles had (relatively) short hair and peppy, bouncy lyrics, and the 1960s were still a decade of possibility: a time when it made sense to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Now go get em, kids.

Flash forward to 1964, when the Beatles stepped into the cultural void left by the assassinated John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War dragged on, and the Civil Rights Movement started to weather internal strife and more forceful conflicts. Young people began experimenting with drugs and free love and political alternatives to the social order (T. V. Carpio's "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is a must-download track), and the champions of the social order didn't like it. The collective patience of the culture wore thin, and the world headed for a crash. the cultural crash was given a soundtrack with Dana Fuch's rendition (as Sadie) of "Helter Skelter," Bono's unsatisfying "I Am the Walrus" and Joe Cocker's forced "Come Together," but the emotional breakdown that inevitably follows careless relational experimentation and uncivil war was accompanied by the jaded "I Want You/She's So Heavy" and "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," reinterpreted brilliantly by Joe Anderson as Max, and the less satisfying "Oh Darling" by Sadie and Martin Luther as an otherwise wonderful Jo Jo. Even the very funny Eddie Izzard kept the mood cynical and tired in his wildly creative "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," which I'm sad to say is not on the soundtrack.

Across the Universe ends on a hopeful note, with performances of "Don't Let Me Down" and "All You Need Is Love" evocative of the Beatles' rooftop performance of Let It Be, but it's worth noting that Let It Be was essentially a postmortem for the Beatles; by its release they had disbanded.

The thing is, both these pictures of the 1960s are wildly exaggerated, but both are essentially true. The decade started in wild, unfettered hope and ended in tired protest and rote experimentation. No wonder the 1970s were so lame; everybody was burned out from trying to change the world.

At least they tried, I guess. If you're looking for a fun, feel-good film, go for Hairspray. If you're looking for a more melancholy retrospective of a troubling time, get Across the Universe. But if you want to know the 1960s, you'll need to see them both.


Jennwith2ns said…
Really good reviews. I saw the first movie (Hairspray) and can honestly say I never smiled through so much of a movie in my life. But probably they should have shown it in theatres without seats--so the audience could dance.
Anonymous said…
Like with The Producers, I am still befuddled with the concept of a movie based on a play based on a movie. Why, oh why?

....ahhh the cycle continues.
Unknown said…
I really enjoyed hairspray too (and was slightly surprised by that)! Thanks for this great review and cultural review - what a great word smith you are!
Anonymous said…
I hate to be a nitpicker, but in 1964 the conflict in Vietnam was ramping up, not dragging on....August 1964 was the Gulf of Tonkin, which was a major turning point for escalation.

Also, the Civil Rights Movement was really doing well in 1964 - Freedom Summer, MFDP at the Dems Convention, Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act (though not as meaningful at the Voting Rights Act in 1965. It wasn't until 1966/67 that splits began to take their toll in SNCC, SCLC, etc.....and then of course in 68 things were blown open with the death of King.

Sorry, just had to question your wording. ;)
David Zimmerman said…
Who dares to question my wording?!? OK, OK, more research before clicking on "post." I'll do better.
Anonymous said…
Some of us lived through high school, college and our first jobs during the 60's - and we survived. Maybe that is why we are so uncomfortable with the current admin's attitude these days. History does make statements, and often it is through its music.

caleb j seeling said…
hey, man, i'm not going to pubu this november. would love to catch up with you sometime though. i'll be in st. louis at the beginning of november...meantime, you can find out more on the navpress deliberate facebook page. let's connect!

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