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Film Review: Across The Universe

Across The Universe (2007; Directed by Julie Taymor)

Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is a mostly-wondrous visual and technical piece of work, but it holds together about as well as the Beatles during the Let It Be sessions.

My stubble is compelling.

There’s little to no question that Taymor is a genuine visionary in the theatrical world, and this film firmly establishes her as such in the cinematic world as well. She surrounds herself with similarly singular artists behind the camera as well: Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography keeps up with the boundless imagination and constant changes of scenery, Elliot Goldenthal adapts the endlessly-familiar Beatles songs with just the right amount of defamiliarization, Mark Freidberg’s production design is rich and busy, Albert Wolsky got an Oscar nod for his costumes, and Daniel Ezralow produces some occasionally brilliant dance choreography.

Her actors are mostly steady and charismatic, even if they regularly get lost in the fever-dream of reconstituted hippie imagery. Brit pretty-boy Jim Sturgess is the film’s rock, and his Jude mostly grounds the variant madness. And, yes, he’s actually named Jude; almost all of the characters’ names come from Beatles tunes, so if that’s too arch for you, this is not your kind of movie. Joe Anderson’s Max is a scrawny bundle of twitchy energy with a surprisingly bluesy growl of a singing voice (and he wields a silver hammer at one point for no real reason). Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, and T.V. Carpio give undercooked subplot relationships more verve and interest than you might expect. Only Evan Rachel Wood (the poor woman’s Scarlett Johansson, who’s no spring chicken actress herself) fails to stick her landings; her Lucy is a pretty blank shunted along by a plot that can’t make up its mind. Oh, and rehearse your best “Is that…?” face for several celebrity cameos as well.

But Across the Universe is all about the music of the Beatles, those key musical chromosomes in the mass cultural DNA of the West. The litany of production numbers that visualize these Fab songs are sometimes revelatory but more often off-putting. For every number that leaves your eyebrows raised and impressed, there’s two sequences that leave your eyes rolling at their forehead-slapping literal obviousness.

Examples? Taymor and her collaborators envision Abbey Road‘s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as a cajoling to martial sacrifice, and the results are spectacular. Max walks into an enlistment office after being drafted, and is met by massive, authoritarian Uncle Sam posters literally coming to (CG-assisted) life in their desire to put his body into a uniform and ship him out. What ensues is a sequence of intensely corporeal Orwellian imagery, as army men with prosthetic square jaws strip recruits and toss them about in violent precision (Ezralow’s choreography here is amazing) and processing cubicles drop from the ceiling. The whole crazy, magnificent thing culminates with Max and other underwear-clad recruits stomping like titanic Atlases over a miniature Vietnamese jungle, laboriously hauling the Statue of Liberty on their backs over the song’s “she’s so heavy” coda. It’s not a terribly new message (the Vietnam War was an imperialistic perversion of American values; yeah, we know), but it’s imparted in such a bold and potent new way that such quibbles hardly matter.

I have no idea why wealthy elites didn't take them more seriously, do you?

Other sequences are similarly inventive. There’s a wildly theatrical “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in a field that can’t properly be described and thus must be seen; the full gospelization of the already-churchy “Let It Be” as an elegy for the dead of Detroit’s 12th Street Riot; a simple but strong reinterpretation of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” as an anthem for the hopeless yearning of forbidden homosexual desire; a classic-musical take on “Happiness is a Warm Gun” with rotating hospital beds and multiple sexy nurses; and “Come Together” as an intro to the multicoloured richness of Greenwich Village.

But then there are the numbers that go for such stultifyingly direct uses of the songs as to spark guffaws. “Dear Prudence” exhorts Carpio’s Prudence to leave the closet (literally and figuratively, though there’s rarely much space between the two in this movie). “Hey Jude” exhorts Jude to “go out and get her”. “Revolution” is quoted to express skepticism at idealistic ’60s radicalism (there’s even a convenient picture of Chairman Mao for Sturgess to point at). “All My Loving” soundtracks a montage about the deluded optimism of separated lovers. And of course “All You Need is Love” argues that all the central lovers need is… love. Most wasteful is Bono’s cameo, singing “I am the Walrus” in a psychedelic bus surrounded by depraved hippies; the U2 frontman is damned funny with his handlebar mustache and faked American drawl, then just turns into his famous and recognizable self again when he sings. That the whole sequence is a fairly empty recreation of the Magical Mystery Tour film (itself not exactly a Beatles highlight) doesn’t really help. One is at least grateful that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is saved for end credits and does not involve Wood’s Lucy in the sky… with diamonds.

Combine these lazy applications of the Beatles catalogue with a plot that can’t make up its mind about which way to go for several interminable stretches, and it’s enough to diminish the film’s achievements, which are hardly scant. Taymor’s muse rewards often enough for a slight recommendation, but is too uneven for a strong one. Beatles nuts (like myself) will be frustrated and annoyed at least as often as they are delighted; maybe neophytes will be more diverted, but that’s not a perspective I have access to, so I can’t really say. Don’t go in expecting revelations and you’ll be pleasantly amused, is about all I can ultimately say.

Categories: Film, Music, Reviews
  1. Dangerous Person
    July 31, 2011 at 10:03 am

    All I can ultimately say is that Jim Sturgess is a dreamboat.

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