A film review by Craig J. Koban

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE jjj

2007, PG-13, 131 mins.

Lucy Evan: Rachel Wood / Jude: Jim Sturgess / Max: Joe Anderson / Sadie: Dana Fuchs / Prudence: T.V. Carpio / Dr. Robert: Bono / Mr. Kite: Eddie Izzard / Jo-Jo: Martin Luther McCoy

Directed by Julie Taymor /  Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais

"Music is the only thing that makes sense anymore... play it loud enough and it keeps the demons at bay."

-Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy)

in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE

 

I am not a huge music buff, nor do I own many CDs (for every five in my possession I probably have around 100 DVDs).  Nevertheless, I know what I like and my all-time favourite CD has to be THE BEATLES: 1966-1970 compilation set.

 

I have listened to those tracks at least a hundred times and I continue to be amazed at the rich variety and ingenuity of The Fab Four.  I have other sets that I like, but The Beatles are my most cherished group...by a long shot.  If trapped on a desert island, it would be my only musical possession if I were allowed only one.  To me, they're absolutely required listening for anyone even remotely interested in music.

This brings me to the new musical, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, which has the bold - but not altogether original - idea of framing its story on the heels of some of the greatest songs of the Beatles catalogue.  The script - credited to Julie Taymor, Dick Clement and Ian LaFranais - is original, per se, but its songs certainly are not.  ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is every Beatle maniacís wet dream: It incorporates 34 compositions written by those boys from Liverpool - whether presented in their entirety or in part - that were written between 1963 and 1969.  Whatís interesting to note is that the film has been somewhat wrongly labeled as the "Beatle musical", when in actuality the songs were created by and credited to individual writers, not the group as a whole.  Of course, mentioning this is almost facetious...and it does not really matter.  The songs here are fantastic, even if they are presented in decidedly different tones at times.

Like all great musicals, this one is crammed with wall-to-wall music and songs, combined with nifty and stylish dance numbers, trippy and psychedelic visuals, and sumptuous production values.  It ostensibly uses the songs of the Beatles to tell the story of young lovers over the backdrop of the turbulent 1960's, when the Vietnam War, growing civil unrest, and an increasingly distrusting and cynical youth movement was afoot in the US and abroad.  In many ways, the filmís appropriation of the work of the Beatles seems almost mandatory: this group helped define the generation.

Itís very hard not to be moved and stirred when the music blasts from the soundtrack in the theatre and into the collective consciousness of film viewers.  ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is a odd bit of nostalgic filmmaking; it makes you joyfully recall your own first exposure to the Beatles and think back on the history of the time, but it also works independently of those aspects by being a fairly jovial, outrageously stylized, and boisterous visual feast.

Julie Taymor is, among all things, a strong visualist (her previous films, like the grand and opulent TITUS and the splendid FRIDA, strongly attest to this), and in ACROSS THE UNIVERSE it seems like no effort on her part was spared in making it a stirring and compelling vision.  There are moments in the film that are bravura bits of choreography, showmanship, and visual inventiveness.  Certainly, there are many times where her style can be construed as being distracting and needless, but her effort alone to be adventurous and different should be commended.  Like the best musical of the current decade, MOULIN ROUGE, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE makes no apologies for being a fairly go-for-broke, audio-visual extravaganza.

As complex and warped as the imagery in the film is, the story it tells is marked by simplicity.  ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is a love story set within one the 20th Centuryís most tumultuous decades.  Itís the 1960's and as the film opens a young man from Liverpool named Jude (Jim Sturgess, in immaculate and commanding singing form here mimicking the best of the Beatles songs) has decided to leave his go-nowhere factory job behind him and take a ship across the Atlantic in search of the dad that had abandoned him when he was a baby.  As he arrives at Princeton he is disappointed to discover that his dad is a lowly janitor that does not want to have anything to do with him.

Thankfully, Jude is befriended by an all around slacker named Max (Joe Anderson, in a lively and funny performance), who lives a lifestyle of defying his parents wishes and authority in general.  He also has a cute teenage sister named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), whose boyfriend was just recently killed in Vietnam.  Of course, Jude and Lucy hit it off rather famously and begin to fall in love.  Eventually, brother, sister, and Jude end up dropping Princeton like a bad habit and move to a pad in Greenwich Village.  While there they also hook up with a colorful group of strangers, like Prudence, a lesbian cheerleader (T.V. Carpio), the remarkably Janis Joplinesque Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and the equally remarkable Jimi Hendrixesque Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy).  They all live in a cohabitation of peace, love, and rock and roll. 

They all manage to become involved in the anti-war peace movement and take lots of road trips, one in particular has them getting aboard Dr. Roberts' (played memorably by U2's Bono) Magic Bus, which is eerily similar to Ken Kesseyís magical mystery tour.  They also hook up with Mr. Kite (the very peculiar and odd Eddie Izzard) and get some valuable life lessons from him.  However, along with all of this free, promiscuous hippie lifestyle comes setbacks and tragedy.   Max sees himself drafted and fails to find a way out of the army and ends up going to Vietnam.  Back on the home front, Judeís fledging art career and Lucyís growing militant peace advocacy starts to drive the two star crossed lovers apart.

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE does not work uniquely on a story level (itís romance is fairly perfunctory and preordained; nothing particularity shocking or surprising happens in the story and it chugs from point a to b with limited infringement).  Yet, despite the storyís formulaic structure, Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess have great chemistry and work marvelously off of one another, not to mention that their coverage of Beatles songs are fantastic.  90 per cent of the songs in the film were recorded live on set and were not dubbed with studio recordings in post production.  This is noteworthy, and kind of amazing.  Sturgess, Wood, and all other actors reveal themselves to be remarkably adept and confident vocalists.  Listening to them is a joy.

The songs, of course, are legendary, but ACROSS THE UNIVERSEís choice to use famous music to punctuate the story is hardly as trendsetting as you may think (Baz Luhrmann did much of the same thing in MOULIN ROGUE).  Yet, what I liked here is that Taymor and company just donít settle for dry regurgitation of the Beatles songs.  Whatís interesting here is how they manage to infuse a whole new mood into songs that I thought could never stray away from the originals.  Songs like "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", sung by a jaded lesbian, take on a whole new melancholic and depressing vibe.  Granted, many of the other songs maintain the flamboyant spunk and sass of the original versions, but watching the film is exciting in the manner it oftentimes dramatically alters our preconceived memories of these classic songs.  ACROSS THE UNIVERSE kind of achieves the impossible by making iconic rock tunes feel fresh.

If the film had any flaws than it would be in that it suffers from some narrative focus and from some tonal inconsistencies.  Far too often the plot hones in on secondary and tertiary characters when we really want to focus on the two lovers themselves.  Furthermore, there are moments that feel pedestrian and laid back stylistically and then the film plummets into drug induced, hallucinogenic, visual overkill.  As stated, I liked Taymorís visual audacity here (a few sequences, like one where Max is whisked off to basic training, is inspired, as is a drug induced trip with Dr. Roberts and a moment where Jude realizes his love for Lucy in a bowling alley), but the film canít seem to decide on a singular aesthetic.  Taymor makes brave choices here, but too many times she feel reigned in.

Then there is also the filmís much publicized editing controversy, where the initial Taymor cut of the film was edited down to a shorter length by the studio without her knowledge.  After considerable amount of jockeying between Sony Pictures and Taymor, her longer edited version was the one the made it way to the silver screen.  There is no denying the vigorous creativity and ambition of ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, but the film is a bit too long for its own good, not to mention that it feels like a first edit, work in progress much of the time.  It is the filmís disparaging elements and lack of cohesiveness that trumps it out of being in the league of great screen musicals.  This could be the first and only case I can readily recall where perhaps the studio's initial instincts about the film were solidly grounded.

On the whole, however, the positive outweighs the negative and Julie Taymorís lavish and innovative ode to The Beatles and the 60's is a real treat.  The underlining story of lovers faced with obstacles to happiness has a paint-by-numbers simplicity, and too often the film canít really decide what mood its going for.  Yet, this does not distract away from the fact that ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is a phantasmagoric tribute to the Beatlesí legacy, that of liberation, rebellion, artistic expression, and...of course...love.  The film, if you overlook its obvious deficiencies, is aggressively innovative, commendably wacky and silly, and stupendous to look at and listen to.  Perhaps its most long standing achievement is that it makes you want to rush home and pop your favourite Beatles CD into your player for the ump-teeth time.  As a film to be actively experienced, not passively watched, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE largely succeeds.

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