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Sony exploits its Beatles catalog

Fab Four musical takes long and winding road

Like most cliches, the idea that the Beatles provided “the soundtrack for a generation” is grounded in truth, but there’s more to it than that. The timelessness of the Fab Four has defied the laws of celebrity physics, finding favor with several generations of fans — not just those who came of age in the ’60s.

And it’s this universal appeal that Sony Pictures is banking on when “Across the Universe,” which makes use of a stunning 33 compositions from the catalog of more than 200 Beatles originals, premieres Sept. 10 at the Toronto Film Festival, and upon its subsequent release on 25 screens in New York and L.A. on Sept. 14.

Placing the occasional Beatles tune in movies isn’t new. “I Am Sam” (2001), for example, used a sprinkling. But the sheer range and quantity of the wall-to-wall songs in “Universe” is unprecedented.

In the process, Sony overcame a number of roadblocks normally associated with such endeavors, including dealing with the notoriously difficult Apple Corps, the Beatles’ company; the more notoriously difficult Michael Jackson, who co-owns the Beatles catalog with Sony/ ATV Music; and avoiding comparisons to the disastrous 1978 “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” movie that starred the Bee Gees.

To avoid these pitfalls, the filmmakers utilized smart, lateral thinking. As John Lennon advised us in “All You Need Is Love”: “It’s easy.”

Since Apple controls rights to the Beatles’ recordings but not their compositions, neither their permission nor that of the Beatles was required. And contrary to popular misconception, Jackson does not involve himself in day-to-day decisions on exploitation of the Beatles’ catalog, leaving Sony to make deals.

Licenses for Beatles songs are naturally expensive, especially when used as mere adornment in a film, and daunting because music budgets are more often than not threadbare and the last element added before a film’s release. But in treating the music as an integral part of “Universe,” the price amounted to a pittance compared with the loot afforded top-tier actors.

Producer Matthew Gross (who worked for Arnold Kopelson before setting up on his own shop) and colleague Ben Haber were responsible fer getting “Universe” off the ground in late 2003. While discussing the popularity of the Beatles’ music, they wondered why no one had really tapped into its potential for films. Figuring the main obstacles were financial and legal, Gross went straight to the primary source: Sony/ATV Music.

At approximately $250,000 per each movie sync license, the cost per song was certainly not cheap. But Gross figured that even if he licensed 18 songs (his original plan) the total would be less than $5 million. In Gross’ mind, the Beatles were a proven investment, so he made a deal that gave him an option to license a surprising number of songs.

Finding scriptwriters who could take this treasure-trove of music and turn it into something worthy of the material was the next step. An agent recommended he meet Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, British writers based in Los Angeles for more than 25 years.

Best known for their script for Alan Parker’s “The Commitments” and for their award-winning work on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” they draw on a 43-year partnership that had its roots in acclaimed British sitcoms of the 1960s and 1970s. It didn’t hurt that they had written and produced the 1985 Michael Caine comedy “Water” for George Harrison’s Handmade Pictures, a film that featured musical cameos by George and Ringo.

For Clement and La Frenais, the strength of the songs lay in the wide range of emotions evoked in the lyrics. “The idea was reverse engineering,” Gross explains. “Instead of trying to string together a story from the songs, (we tried to) create a story and find the songs that suited the story.”

After five unproductive pitch meetings, they went to Joe Roth’s Revolution Studios, which had a deal with Sony. Within hours Roth committed to the film, and it was Roth who steered them toward director Julie Taymor, with whom he had become acquainted at Disney as chairman of its studio operation. Taymor, who by then had won the Tony for her Broadway adaptation of “The Lion King” and was best known in the movie world for her direction of the Frida Kahlo biopic “Frida,” was herself a Beatles admirer and had been considering creating a stage musical based on Beatles’ music, so the film idea struck a very receptive chord.

She concurred with the scriptwriters’ instinct to create a love story, and they determined the scenario should be set in the period when the songs were written. Taymor also felt the drama should unfold as a parallel arc of a tumultuous decade. When the ’60s were comparatively innocent and carefree, so were the Beatles songs. As the struggles of the decade started to impinge on the world’s consciousness, scarred by the RFK and King assassinations in 1968, the Beatles music changed in style, topic and tone.

As Taymor notes: “As writers, the Beatles reflected the zeitgeist of their times.”

Taymor’s partner, stage and film composer Elliot Goldenthal, arranged and produced the 33 songs for the soundtrack with help from longtime collaborator Matthias “Teese” Gohl and producer T-Bone Burnett (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”).

In most film musicals, the performers lip-sync to their own prerecorded vocals. But Taymor and Goldenthal felt that to capture the optimum emotion, it would be essential, wherever possible, for the performers to render their vocals live over recorded backing tracks.

In addition to the key six cast members who would sing, Taymor recruited three performers for important cameos: Veteran song stylist Joe Cocker — famous for his many interpretations of Beatles songs such as “With a Little Help From My Friends” — signed up to perform “Come Together”; comedian Eddie Izzard created the title character in “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” number; and U2 frontman Bono, as Dr. Robert, extols the psychedelic implications of “I Am the Walrus.”

Whether Taymor’s operatic, visually daring result will find an appreciative audience remains to be seen. But perhaps the most important critics — Paul, Ringo, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison — have given the movie a collective thumbs-up. “All four gave the film their blessing,” says La Frenais with evident pride.

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