For many of us, the political, social or cultural gaps we experience with our students may feel at times like the gaps we sense with our children.
If you see your children periodically instead of every day, then you have probably experienced some ‘transition’ dramas when you are arriving or leaving home. It takes a while for everyone to adjust to being together again, or, worse, to overlooking the fact that soon you will be apart. When you do get together, perhaps you lack information about the nitty-gritty aspects of your children’s lives, or you feel you don’t have enough to say to each other?
As kids become teenagers, (and then college students), the divide between parent and child starts to grow, unless you find topics with which you both seem to connect. Good conversation starters are movies, sports, hobbies, and particularly, music. Finding cultural content that allows you to segue into discussing moral or political choices with your kids is what many academic parents may look for, particularly if your time together is limited.
My two teenagers and I have found a new obsession recently — Julie Taymor’s film Across the Universe (2007), which includes more than 30 Beatles songs and a love story set in the turbulent 1960s. I neglected seeing this film when it was first released because Taymor’s rock musical received mixed reviews from the critics. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times loved it; J.R. Jones of the Chicago Reader (and many others) did not.
Since I’ve done a little film criticism myself, I should have known not to trust every review, particularly reviews about a musical, directed by a talented female artist. Julie Taymor is the director who gave us The Lion King on Broadway, and is well-known for her phantasmagoric costume design, choreography and art direction. Unfortunately, receiving Academy Award nominations for music, screenplay adaptation and winning an Emmy for costume design does not necessarily place you in the top tier of (mostly male) film directors.
But after watching Across the Universe at least 7-8 times in a short time-span, I want to make a pitch for placing Julie Taymor in the same category with the Coen Brothers or Julian Schnabel. I agree with Roger Ebert.  Across the Universe is wonderful for the ways in which it integrates the songs and political culture of the 1960s, particularly for a young audience. With only 30 minutes of dialogue, the narrative and music video format glide together almost seamlessly with just a few missteps. (The lesbian character feels a little planted but the actress is a wonderful singer).
Music and dance in film are often critically dismissed as melodramatic or ‘feminized’ pursuits — not narrative enough. Perhaps there is more of a melodramatic display of emotion in musicals, but these excessive moments of sound and image sure work well with my teenage son and daughter. Across the Universe provides an opportunity for discussing history--the anti-war politics surrounding Columbia University and the Vietnam War, as well as sex, drugs and rock-n-roll in non-judgmental, sociological ways. In a scene in which the rolling waves of the ocean are superimposed with images of students protesting, soldiers fighting, and the musical refrain from "Helter Skelter," the film structurally investigates how pop culture and history flow, surge, crash, and then recede together.
Check it out. Across the Universe helped me to reach across a few decades with my kids. I will share it with my students too.