Director Julie Taymor’s latest film, Across the Universe, chronicles the 1960s through the use of Beatles songs, spanning their entire catalogue. Considering Taymor’s knack for creating incredible visual spectacles (Frida), as well as the continued relevance of the music of the Beatles, this might be a great idea.
We follow the story of Jude (Jim Sturgess), a young artist from Liverpool in search of his father, and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a young suburbanite in search of what she believes in. They meet through her brother, Maxwell, a college dropout, and fall in love. Along the way they run into Sadie, a rock singer with a big, raspy voice, JoJo, an electric guitar player, and Prudence, a girl who keeps running from her problems.
The film hinges on the songs, and there are some undeniably great performances. Anytime Sadie sang, she had my full attention. When JoJo entered the picture, a well choreographed version of “Come Together,” sung by Joe Cocker, took the screen. “A Little Help From My Friends,” in which Max welcomed Jude to the American lifestyle was fun and simple. The musical highlight, though, was “Let It Be,” initially sung by a young boy caught in the Detroit riots, and finished by a full gospel choir.
Most of the characters were colorful and entertaining, although painfully underdeveloped. Sadie and JoJo were far more interesting than Jude and Lucy, and yet we barely scratch the surface with them. Evan Rachel Wood’s performance of Lucy made me cringe. Any time she opened her mouth to sing in her Disney Channel voice, I counted down the seconds until it was over.
A film that rides so much on spectacle shouldn’t be expected to have a very deep plot, but the plot was so weak that it was almost impossible to decipher. I’d like to think I’m a pretty perceptive filmgoer, but I didn’t figure out that Prudence was a lesbian until after the movie was over. Nor could I comprehend why JoJo and Sadie broke up in the middle of everything. I’m a fan of subtlety, but there’s a difference between being subtle and just ignoring things.
The one way the film succeeded was not with creating a tear jerking romance, but in exploring the darker side of the human psyche. The scenes dealing with Max as he entered the military and the Vietnam War were incredible. “I Want You” was used to its full potential at the office of the draft board, where the young soldiers-to-be were manipulated by the recruiters. I felt incredibly uneasy throughout the entire scene. Likewise with the latter part of the movie, when Max was in the VA hospital and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” took over the scene; it was perfectly done and incredibly creepy.
Two absolute diversions: Dr. Robert was played by Bono, and Mr. Kite, by Eddie Izzard. Bono’s “I Am the Walrus” relied too much on psychedelic color manipulation, which gave me a headache and I found myself irritated that even in this movie he was wearing those stupid sunglasses. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was better, a stop motion animation circus and freak show. Izzard’s performance of the song was characteristically Eddie. He was playing himself, just with a bit more bizarre makeup than usual.
The thing that kept me paying attention throughout the movie was looking for references and allusions. Sadie, who was obviously based on Janis Joplin, played at the Café Huh? a takeoff of the Café Wha? in Greenwich Village. I was disappointed that they did not include a Bob Dylan figure. JoJo resembled Jimi Hendrix. Beatles references, of course, abounded. When Sadie met Max she said that he looked like a good kid, “but what do I know? You could have just killed your granny with a hammer.” [Subtle! -ed.]
Overall, I found myself wondering why this movie was made. Taking the songs of an artist and making a fictional musical that is completely unrelated to the band is pointless. The whole movie, while attempting to create the feel of the turmoil of the 1960s, really just gets stuck on trying to include as many songs as possible. Most of the time it seemed like they were going, “Oh, shit, I love this song! What excuse can we make to include it?” Using just the Beatles to define an entire generation seems unnecessarily shallow. Why not bust out some Janis and Jimi songs, since they were pretty much in the movie anyway.
In the end, I’d put Across the Universe in the same category as Velvet Goldmine. The music is good, the visuals are cool, the cast is attractive, but I couldn’t care less about most of the characters and the plot goes nowhere. The difference with Across the Universe, though, is that I don’t feel compelled to buy the soundtrack, because the songs in their original form are way better. Except, perhaps, for “Let It Be”—I might download that one…
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”
“Fixing A Hole”
“Got to Get You into My Life”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is available on DVD for only $9.99!