Across the Universe Tumbles Blindly

Pools of Sorrow, No Waves of Joy...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”

Medley

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is available on DVD for only $9.99!

9 thoughts on “Across the Universe Tumbles Blindly”

  1. Fucking classic review. From the sound of it, this sounds like Moulin Rouge, where at the drop of a hat they’ll bust out into Elton John songs, almost apropos of NOTHING!! I still have to see Stigwood’s great trainwreck of SPLHCB.

  2. I think it kind of sucks to tether the Beatles to the 60’s – the associations I have with their music has nothing to do with Vietnam or riots.

    Damn boomers…

  3. Sucks to tether the Beatles to the 60s? Where else can you tie them to?? They didn’t last past the 60s and their music represents the 60s. Us boomers may be a pain in the ass but without us there were no Beatles.We grew up with them and they grew up with us. They are OUR band. Stop cryin already and get your own band…..There are lots of great ones out there from subsequent decades…

  4. That’s exactly the type of response that prompts resentment towards the boomers from other generations. This false sense of importance from a generation that really needs a reality check to properly gauge their relevance (“without us”). We’re music fans. We know when the band was active and we know how much they meant to you. Now, man up and realize that their music transcends your generation and it continues to inspire others, which seems to be what Shecks was stating. To call shotgun on the Beatles like that is the equivalent to saying Mozart is only for the generations born in the 18th century. BY your logic, we’re not supposed to appreciate him either.

  5. I only made that obviously stupid comment to counteract what is obviously ridiculous in the other posters comment as well. Of course it is presumptious of boomers to claim the Beatles. You don’t need to have been born in the 60s to appreciate them the same as you don’t need to be born in 18th century to appreciate Mozart, but the fact remains that Mozart was a product of his time and can’t be untethered from that either. The Beatles ARE a product of the second generation of rock and rollers, which came of age in the 50s and flowered in the 60s. It is just as presumptious to try and undo the Beatles’ influence on and influence by their times as it is for any generation to claim them.

    Oh yea, and John Lennon did have a few things to say about the War in Vietnam just in case anyone has forgetten. And the Beatles did comment about current events even in their songs; sorry about that.

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