I’ve seen this movie two and a half times now, and I’m sad to say that I love it a little less each time.
Now, I still think it’s a good movie. The songs are infectious and the Strawberry Fields sequence is stunning (not to mention Let It Be, I Want You, and Because!) and I found it fascinating as a historical piece (my parents seemed to find it accurate when I watched it with them the first time– they certainly laughed at all sorts of references that flew over my head.) However, that does not mean it is without its flaws.
My primary annoyance, as I rewatched it, was that all the narrative attention was being given to three rather boring white folks. Maybe that’s the only way to make a movie about 60s radical groups and have it be acceptable to a wide audience, but dammit, I wanted to see more of Prudence. And Sadie and Jojo. And whoever it was that Staceyann Chin was playing! She showed up in, like, two scenes as “Hippie Gutairist,” and she was amazing!
Max: [on being drafted] And you know what really pisses me off is I swallowed all those cotton balls and they never even took a damn x-ray.
Hippy dude: You still have options man.
Max: Yeah, jail or Canada and they both suck. I mean I could never come home, so what is it, it’s a choice of a 6×4 cell or an endless wasteland of frozen tundra.
Hippy dude: Montreal is cool.
Max: Man, they speak French.
Hippie Guitarist: So learn French. Learn French or die.
(For the record, Max decides to go for “die,” or, well, submit to his drafting obediently. The draft he could have avoided if he hadn’t been too busy drinking to attend his classes at college.)
Anyway, Staceyann Chin: awesome! And then we never see her again. Why? I don’t know. The movie just sort of abandons characters whenever it feels like it’s done with them, until it thinks maybe they might be interesting again.
Prudence is the perfect example. She’s one of the first people we meet, singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to a fellow (female!) cheerleader. So, obviously, I adored her. She’s also Chinese/Filipino and, in a movie set during the Vietnam War, being of any kind of Asian descent would make things, well, interesting. And yet, we never get any comments on what it was like to be a lesbian in the 60s, and the only thing she says about her race is the following:
Prudence: [on how Max can avoid the draft] Say you’re a pedophile – say you want to go into the villages and you want to rape and pillage all the little girls that look like me!
Sadie cuts her off, and that’s it, that’s the entire discussion of life as an Asian-American during the Vietnam War.
I’m not too surprised, though, since Prudence hardly gets a chance to speak the whole movie, let alone maintain a coherent narrative. We see her at the random high school, cheerleading. Then, later, we see her hitch a ride with a truck driver. Then, later, she climbs in through Jude and Max’s bathroom window, saying that she used to live with the man in the next building over; she has a bruise on her face, and someone asks, “did he do that to you?” and she may or may not have nodded, and that’s it. She apparently stays with them, because when Max’s sister Lucy visits, she gushes over Sadie:
Prudence: That’s my landlady!
Lucy: So you live with my brother, too?
Prudence: Yeah, him and Jude took me in!
Prudence: I don’t sleep with him anymore, though!
Instead, she’s in love with Sadie, as we discover from a thirty-second sequence in which she croons “I want you so bad” and then disappears. Shortly thereafter, she barricades herself in the closet (?), and Max, Jude, and Lucy sing “Dear Prudence” to coax her out (Sadie sings the first verse, then leaves with Jojo). Once she’s out, the three take her to an anti-war rally, where she runs ahead of them in the parade. And then Sadie talks about renting out the spare room “now that Prudence’s split.” Neither the audience nor the characters have any idea where she is, but nobody cares. They find her at the circus during the trippy expedition with Doctor Robert, where she plays Henry the Horse and is dating (?) a tall redhead named Rita. When the rest of the group magically teleports back to New York (I’m still not sure how they did so, without the bus), she doesn’t go with them, but when, at the very end of the movie, Jude comes to see Sadie’s performance on the roof, she is there, playing a tiny piano.
It’s confusing because she’s introduced as if she’s going to be important, and then everybody just keeps forgetting her, and forgetting to care about where she is. I want to know why, if she knew she was into girls in high school, she started sleeping with the man who apparently beat her! And I really want to know why she followed that with sleeping with Max! Plus, where did she go at the rally? Why did she just walk off? The camera didn’t even follow her as she did; it definitely looked like “oh, I recognize someone over there!” not, “oh, I’m going to move miles and miles away and never see you again!” And what the hell is up with Henry the Horse?? Moreover, why are all of these interesting stories given one line each, if that, to be told? I mean, that quote above, “I don’t sleep with him anymore, though!” — that’s all we ever get about Prudence’s relationship with Max. Why even bring it up if it’s not going to have any affect on anybody?
And especially, why keep relegating Prudence to the sidelines, to walk in and out as needed for the songs, when the film dedicated so much time to the world’s most privileged white girl ever?
I get that she’s, like, the crux of the “plot,” but I really just don’t like Lucy. She doesn’t change at all throughout the course of the movie. In the beginning, she’s driving to her mansion for her lavish Thanksgiving dinner, mouthing off about the horrors of imperialism:
Max: It’s a heart-warming American tradition.
Lucy: Yeah. It celebrates the time when the Indians shared their food with the early settlers. And how do we repay them? We slaughter them in thousands and then ship them off to the shittiest bits of real estate.
And at the end of the movie…well, at the very end, she’s standing totally silent on a rooftop looking lovingly at Jude while other people sing “she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” to confess her love for her. But near the end, after she has become involved with “the cause” (as Jude calls it), we see her at a protest, talking to her mom on the phone about how people should be radical, everyone should be radical (but don’t worry mom, I’m totally safe), and then, when the wall of protesters meets the wall of cops, she hangs up, and– she’s magically stuck in the phone booth! Around her, people are getting beaten by cops, attacked by dogs, shot, who knows what, but the camera lingers on her, and how upset she is to be so close to violence. You know, the violence that’s killing the man right on the other side of the glass; the man who is out-of-focus and eventually cropped out of the shot as we zoom in on Lucy’s pained refrain of “It’ll be all right.” At one point, bullet hits the glass but it just fractures, it doesn’t break through, since apparently phone booths were bulletproof in the 60s; in other words, she as close to being literally in a safe little bubble as possible.
I could forgive her for the safe bubble, since it’s only partially self-imposed, except that she’s so self-righteous about… doing secretarial work for the man who has fifty pretty young female employees to every one male employee. Jude was still an idiot to be aggressively jealous, and I suppose some of the inequity could be due to the majority of men being in the army at the time, but I still had a hard time watching her write in her little office, her hair up in a cute little bun, and believe that she’s violently radical. It felt insincere, like she still hadn’t had her epiphany yet, hadn’t really grokked her own privilege.
I think it stems from the need to keep the main love intrest fundamentally a “good girl,” which precludes, well, being interesting. It could also be that the writers didn’t really get it either, and so didn’t know how to write it convincingly. If the “real” story was just supposed to be this love story, with relationship ups and downs happening as the songs demand, but both people ending up basically exactly where they started, then, well, I guess realistically portraying a privileged girl’s political awakening would just distract from the “important” story. Maybe that’s why they handwaved Prudence altogether, too.