Across the Universe (2007)
Julie Taymor is a one-of-a-kind artist. She made her name developing Disney’s The Lion King for the theater with highly elaborate and inventive costuming and staging. She then turned her vision to film and directed two strange yet visually splendid entires, 1999’s Titus and 2002’s Frida. Her latest is Across the Universe, a film constructed around actors singing Beatles songs. Hey, everyone likes the Beatles, so what could go wrong?
It’s the late 1960s and Jude (Jim Sturgess) has traveled from Liverpool (where else?) to Princeton to find his father. He makes friends with troublemaker Max (Joe Anderson) and they elect to travel to New York City and find their voice in these tumultuous times. They get a rather spacious apartment and their landlady, Sadie (Dana Fuchs), is a redheaded rock singer. Joe’s little sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) who just lost her boyfriend in the Vietnam War. JoJo (Martin Luther) and Prudence (T.V. Carpio) find their way to this apartment and into the increasing group of young, music-minded kids in the midst of a social revolution. Lucy fall hard for one another but their relationship is strained because Max has been shipped off to fight in Vietnam and Lucy is joining an increasingly violent radical resistance group.
I can’t decide whether it is clever of simply lazy to structure a whole screenplay around 30-some songs by one band. Many of the tunes are used for pointless reasons like “Dear Prudence” is reduced to coaxing a character out of a closet literally, though she is gay so perhaps there’s a double-meaning there, but it’s still lame. In fact, the entire character of Prudence is pointless and grafted onto the story with no real care or precision. She disappears and then miraculously pops up again, with happy girlfriend in tow, and then that’s it. But what really chafes is that when Taymor uses the Beatles’ songs to tell the bulk of her story that means that little feels authentic. Lucy and Jude spout their love songs so quickly after their first encounter. Their romance doesn’t feel believable and, more importantly, it doesn’t feel worthy of our time and interest.
Across the Universe is dripping with Baby Boomer nostalgia and the film leaves no cliché left unturned in its account of history. This jumbled melting pot of every late 1960s cultural event feels as shallow as a junior high report on the subject. Everything from the Watts riots, to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., to the Columbia protests and LSD activist Ken Kesey and his colorful bus are elbowed into a story that feels empty and crowded at the same time. Across the Universe is a tad overextended and even goes to the trouble of climaxing with a rooftop jam similar to the Beatles’ last public performance together.
Taymor is a talented visionary but sometimes she lets her creative impulses take over her better judgment. The movie ultimately feels like 30-some music videos strung together by a flimsy boy-meets-girl story that will sink or swim depending upon the song-by-song visual follies. Sometimes Taymor excels with the sublimely surreal like some underwater canoodling to “Something,” Uncle Sam reaching out from a recruitment poster to the tune of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and a spectacular rendition of “Happiness is a Warm Gun” where Max and other war vets cope with their trauma while multiple Salma Hayeks tempt them in sexy nurse outfits. But then Taymor gets a little too carried away with her runaway train of an imagination and her visuals can become simplistic (splattering strawberries = blood shed) or just way too funky, like a truly awful animated excursion where the wonderful Eddie Izzard speak-sings “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as a creepy circus ringleader. What does “Come Together” have to do with pimps and prostitutes and Joe Cocker as a bum? The worst moment may be when Taymor decides to visualize the parenthetical of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” by having underwear-clad soldiers hauling the Statue of Liberty over the jungles of Vietnam while they sing, “She’s so heavy.” I’m also uncertain about the flagrant jumps into theatricality like the synchronized acrobatic dancing; it’s a bit jarring at times.
The cast is rather strong from a vocal standpoint and they recorded their performances live instead of within the confines of a recording studio. Wood has a particularly pure voice. Sturgess and his throaty pipes remind me of Ewan McGreggor in Moulin Rouge. Fuchs gives a favorable impression of Janis Joplin. Bono is great in his limited time on screen and hums one dandy version of “I Am the Walrus.” There isn’t a weak singer in the bunch and simply listening to them is one of the highlights of the film, but then I could accomplish this by plugging in the soundtrack. The new arrangements of the Beatles songs are a bit lackluster; they seem too bare and stripped down into vanilla ballads. “Something” sounds exactly note-for-note like how the Elliott Smith version sounded that hauntingly played over the closing credits of American Beauty. I seriously thought that Across the Universe just lifted Smith’s version.
Inherently goofy and occasionally garish, Across the Universe is a misguided trip through the back catalogue of the Beatles. There is a moderate level of fun with the concept and the quirky visuals, but the film plods on and on and eventually the appeal of the gimmick is long exhausted. The singing is strong and the visuals have a sense of whimsy when they work, but in the end the Beatles already had one failed movie constructed entirely from their songs (1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees) and now they have one more for a new generation of fans.
Nate’s Grade: C
Posted on September 25, 2007, in 2007 Movies and tagged drama, eddie izzard, evan rachel wood, jim sturgess, julie taymor, musical, period film, politics, romance, war. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.