Director: Julie Taymor
Runtime: 124 minutes
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Joe Anderson
Here is a bold, beautiful, visually enchanting musical where we walk into the theater humming the songs. Julie Taymor‘s “Across the Universe” is an audacious marriage of cutting-edge visual techniques, heart-warming performances, 1960s history and the Beatles songbook. Sounds like a concept that might be behind its time, but I believe in yesterday.
Released in 2007, Across The Universe is a musical film that effectively captures the spirit of that band of four men in 1960’s who changed the world of music forever. The plot is superbly linked with The Beatles’ back catalog of tunes, and the psychedelic romantic drama is set in that time period, mirroring and highlighting contemporary social and political issues in a vivid and exciting style. And this story-through-song opened my eyes, ears and heart to their music more viscerally than anything else in the eighteen years preceding it.
Though criticized a lot for its loose plot and its audaciousness, Somewhere around its midpoint, “Across the Universe” captured my heart, and I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person. Imperfections, however glaring, become endearing quirks once you’ve tumbled.
While the songs are recycled, “Across the Universe” stands out just by existing. Big screen musicals are already rare – and most musicals based on original material seem to be making fun of the genre more than contributing to it.The director’s striking visual approach ranges from extremely literal to completely abstract, depending mostly on what kind of drugs the characters are consuming.
When I say “story,” don’t start thinking about a lot of dialogue and plotting. Almost everything happens as an illustration to a Beatles song. The arrangements are sometimes familiar, sometimes radically altered, and the voices are all new; the actors either sing or sync, and often they find a mood in a song that we never knew was there before. The director has been a generously inventive choreographer, such as in a basic-training scene where all the drill sergeants look like G.I. Joe; a sequence where inductees in Jockey shorts carry the Statue of Liberty through a Vietnam field, and cross-cutting between dancing to Beatles clone bands at an American high school prom and in a Liverpool dive bar. There are underwater sequences which approach ballet, a stage performance that turns into musical warfare, strawberries that bleed, rooftop concerts and a montage combining crashing waves with the Detroit riots.
The song “I Want You,” for instance, is punctuated by an Uncle Sam poster that comes to animated life. The artist’s canvas for “Strawberry Fields Forever” includes bushels of bleeding fruit. In fact, i would call that song a visceral peak: with “Strawberry Fields Forever.” In this gorgeous production number, an artwork by Jude in which rows of bleeding strawberries are pinned to a white surface transmutes into a hallucination of strawberry bombs raining over Southeast Asia. Then the artist, in an anguished frenzy, begins smashing strawberries on the walls and floors and destroys his work.
When Prudence sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” for example, I realized how wrong I was to ever think that was a happy song. It’s not happy if it’s a hand you are never, never, never going to hold. The love that dare not express its name turns in sadness to song.
There’s a lot of joy in Jim Sturgess’ performance of “I’ve Just Seen a Face” after he meets Lucy for the first time, and the raucous rendition of “With a Little Help From My Friends” is one of the film’s more entertaining moments and proves that there’s still some value in the original Ringo Starr performance, even with Joe Cocker’s version standing as its superior. On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the stirring gospel arrangement of “Let It Be” is also one of the most beautiful and heartrending Beatles covers you will ever hear.
About halfway through the film, even as the musical numbers get weirder and more visually splendid, the story starts to lose its way. Quite frankly, though, the stories aren’t what matter. Across the Universe could have been a better film, but it’s pretty stunning as it is, and opens up new vistas of the imagination in the way that youth and rock and roll themselves have been known to do. Much more than pure baby boomer nostalgia, Across the Universe tickles a nerve for anyone willing to let aesthetics and genuine emotion sweep them away.
Ultimately, Universe‘s saving grace is its reckless energy and Taymor’s typically gorgeous imagery, whether she’s filming a straight-up dance sequence to “With A Little Help From My Friends” or a trippy surrealist nightmare in which the Army processes Anderson to “I Want You.” The film wavers between exhilarating and gimmicky, and the cast’s interpretations of the Beatles catalog vary between passionate and rote, but Across The Universe is consistent in one aspect: Its crazed ambition. When it falls, it falls far, but at least that means it’s reaching high
These songs are now more than 50 years old, some of them, and are timeless, and hearing these unexpected talents singing them (yes, and Bono, Izzard and Cocker, too) only underlines their astonishing quality.this is a movie that fires its songs like flowers at the way we live now. It’s the kind of movie you watch again, like listening to a favorite album. The ultimate high comes when the ending scene of the movie reflects the last Beatles rooftop concert at Saville Row. When the movie shows the same thing, it kind of gives it even more satisfaction to the Beatles enthusiasts.
This is my 4th time watching it, and here’s to hoping I can inspire more Beatles enthusiasts to watch it and enjoy it the way I do.