Across the Universe
Director : Julie Taymor
Screenplay : Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais (story by Julie Taymor & Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2007
Stars : Evan Rachel Wood (Lucy), Jim Sturgess (Jude), Joe Anderson (Max Carrigan), Dana Fuchs (Sadie), Martin Luther McCoy (JoJo), T.V. Carpio (Prudence), Spencer Liff (Daniel), Lisa Hogg (Jude's Liverpool Girlfriend), Nicholas Lumley (Cyril), Michael Ryan (Phil), Angela Mounsey (Jude's Mother), Erin Elliott (Cheer Coach), Robert Clohessy (Jude's Father)
Across the Universe, Julie Taymor's kaleidoscopic musical portrait of the 1960s, is an ambitious mess of a movie that stretches a thin premise across a bold canvas, resulting in moments of near ecstasy mixed with a nagging lack of emotional involvement. Its music numbers, all of which are renditions of songs from the Beatles catalog, are frequently powerful, but only insofar as they tickle your retinas and vibrate your bones. However cleverly the Beatles tunes are incorporated into the story, they rarely speak emotionally in the way great musical numbers are supposed to. Instead, they're just clever.
The storyline follows a half-dozen characters (each of whom is named for a Beatles song) as they traverse the turbulence of America in the late '60s, from the Vietnam war, to violent campus protests, to the counterculture scene, to race riots. Our hero is Jude (Jim Sturgess), a genial Limey with a circa-'68 Paul McCartney shag mullet who has come across the ocean to find the man who fathered him during World War II. He meets a free-thinking Princeton dropout named Max (Joe Anderson) who also happens to have a cute younger sister named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose idealistic boyfriend has just been shipped off to 'Nam. They move to a flophouse in the heart of bohemian Greenwich Village owned by Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a Janis Joplin-esque singer. They are soon joined by Prudence (T.V. Cario), a young woman who is trying to escape her dull life back in Ohio, and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitarist who is destined to be the film's Jimi Hendrix stand-in.
There is plenty of turmoil both culturally and personally as Sadie and JoJo are tested by fame, Lucy is radicalized by militant anti-war protestors, Max is drafted into the war, and Jude tries to become an artist while maintaining an apolitical stance in increasingly political times. Despite all this action and tumult, Across the Universe remains rather dramatically inert, mostly because each storyline is less about character than it is about conventional '60s archetypes and tired story arcs. You can see each narrative development coming as clearly as you can predict, given the characters' names, that songs like “Dear Prudence” and “Hey Jude” are bound to show up eventually. The film's heart is in the right place and it's clearly intended to uplift the spirits, but the screenplay by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (from a story they concocted with Taymor) is hampered by clichés and is all-too-clearly written around the Beatles songs that provide the bulk of the film's emotional investment. Again, it's a clever concept, but one that never quite transcends its cleverness.
This is not to say, however, that Across the Universe doesn't have its pleasures. As she proved with her bold, violent feature film debut, an unconventional adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus (1999), Taymor is a grand visual stylist who isn't afraid to mix tones and experiment. Across the Universe contains more than two dozen musical numbers, and they range from simple and direct (Prudence's soft, sad rendition of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” as an expression of her thwarted teenage lesbian longings), to unapologetically epic (the grand finale that brings everyone together with “All You Need Is Love”), to the surreal (Bono appearing as a Ken Kesey-type counterculture leader singing “I Am the Walrus”), to the downright silly (a bizarre hospital sequence in which Max sings “Happiness is a Warm Gun”).
Taymor, who started her career in the theater and is still best known for turning Disney's The Lion King into a surprisingly robust stage musical, insisted that the majority of the singing be done on-camera. This decision infuses the musical numbers with a live energy that is often infectious, and Taymor compliments the sonic power with a rangy palette of visual styles. One sequence takes place underwater, another features an Army recruitment poster coming to life, while others rely on the simple visual contradiction of diegetic song-and-dance against a mundane backdrop. Taymor works best with high concepts, although her literalism (a bowl of strawberries kick-starting “Strawberry Fields Forever”) can sometimes be a downer.
Nevertheless, however intriguing Across the Universe might be in concept and visual execution, it still stumbles over its story, which constantly reduces a complex cultural moment into a set of easily digested setpieces and character types. We never really feel for the characters and their various obsessions and losses because they never transcend their assigned place in the social/cultural spectrum. Across the Universe shoots for the epic, but ultimately settles for turning history into kitsch.
Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2007 Columbia Pictures