Posted in Film, Writing

How to Use Songs in Your Storytelling

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Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!

Review — Across the Universe (2007)

A young cheerleader sits on the bleachers, looking out at the football players, singing the Beatles’ “I Want To Your Hand.” The camera zooms in toward the players, past the players, toward another beautiful blonde cheerleader. We realize the cheerleader is interested in another girl. She then proceeds to walk down the bleachers and past the other cheerleaders, all in slow-motion, as she realizes she will never have that cheerleader’s love. This is one of just many beautiful, heartfelt moments in Across the Universe, a frustrating piece of work that’s ambitious but maddening, artistic but poorly paced. There’s a lot to like here, and some things to love, but the movie has problems.

The movie is a love story (surprise, surprise) about a Londoner named Jude (the dashing Jim Sturgess) who comes to America in search of his father and ends up falling in love with Lucie (Evan Rachel Wood). They make their way to New York City and make friends (and enemies), only to find themselves in the midst of the chaos of the Vietnam War, with their friend Max having to go and fight, and with Lucie’s boyfriend coming home in a body bag. Their relationship becomes strained when Lucie becomes overly involved in the fight against the war, and Jude has problems with his immigration status.

First of all, on the positive side, something must be said for the pure joy it is to hear one classic Beatles song after another two hours. And thankfully these people can sing! I’m always one to approve of good covers, and there’s not a bad one here in the bunch. Jim Strurgess is the stand-out; his voice is hypnotic. Gifted director Julie Taymor knows she’s working with one gem after another, and she allows the songs to play out in sometimes simple, sometimes fantastic, sometimes jaw-dropping numbers. The unpredictability of what she’s gonna do with each upcoming song is kind of infectious. And each song is filled with so much emotion that it’s surprising that the movie isn’t a masterpiece.

Taymor is known for visual feasts for the eye, as she directed the dynamic (and better) Titus, with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, back in 1999. That film had a tremendous feel and look to it, but the one aspect in that film that differs from this one is that the film’s storyline was always pressing ahead. In Across the Universe, it feels at times like Taymor is negating the plot in service of its musical numbers. There is rarely a dull moment in the movie, but in the second half, I found myself wondering where exactly the movie was going. It made me think of a movie like Forrest Gump, which was all over the place in terms of its style and plot, but had a clear arc from beginning to end that kept it going toward its conclusion. After a tremendous first act, a disappointing second act, and a better third act, I was surprised to see how little far we’d come by the film’s closing number.

There’s also a problem with the whole tone of the movie. Taymor can’t decide if she wants to stay more realistic or go more surrealistic. The best handful of musical numbers, especially the scary and astonishing Army recruiting number, are exactly the root of the problem with the movie. If she wants to go all the way with the surrealism, go for it. There are too many long stretches where the movie is fairly routine, and even some of the musical numbers keep it simple and real, for her to go all the way with giant, profound, artistic numbers involving powdered women falling into water and giant blue creature puppets flailing around an open field. They work well on their own but not in the overall spirit of the movie.

Across the Universe is a mixed bag that I’ll probably see again, and I’m for sure going to buy the soundtrack. There’s nothing wrong with a movie that tries to be too ambitious, and that’s exactly the case with this movie. The central love story is sweet, the majority of the musical numbers are fantastic, but in the end, I felt a little empty, kind of like the young cheerleader in the beginning who sings about the love she has for another female cheerleader. We never learn what really happens to that character, if she ever found love, or if she ever found happiness. And we deserved to.

Watching Like a Writer

Something I think a lot about is the role music plays in my short stories and novels. It seems like an odd fascination, since you can’t actually hear the music your characters are listening to when you’re just reading a book as opposed to watching a film. Music brings such important emotion to a great film that a writer can’t necessarily bring to the soundless words on a page, but I still think it’s vital to think about the kind of songs your character listens to and what songs might pop up in specific scenes of the manuscript. In my latest work-in-progress, for example, my protagonist is dealing with a trauma and has no interest in the upcoming Christmas holiday, and I have him wincing every time an old-school Christmas song pops up on the radio or at the mall or at his friend’s house. Music may not be as powerful in fiction but it’s still a necessary component.

Exercise!

Think about the protagonist of your latest work-in-progress. What kind of music does he or she listen to? Write down five songs he or she absolutely loves.

One thought on “How to Use Songs in Your Storytelling

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