Theatrical Review: Julie Taymor
's Across the Universe is a musical that tells its story through a couple dozen Beatles songs and in service of this ambition, it is necessary to forgive a certain degree of yearning nostalgia. The wealth of references and in-jokes -- spare lyrics turning up in dialogue, a rooftop concert, unexpected appearances of Joe Cocker -- may seem cornball or literal, and they sometimes are, but the movie's brand of Beatlemania is unabashedly fannish, too, and understandable in its way. There are plenty of musical acts whose music and lyrics brought to life would not enchant me; don't wake me for the inevitable Light My Fire or Brass in Pocket. But if Taymor and her collaborators can't contain their enthusiasm for referring to as many songs, characters, real-life incidents, and other elements involved in the storied history of the Beatles, I can't say I blame them. I may even giggle along in solidarity.
To wit: Jude (Jim Sturgess
) washes ashore to seek out his absent father, and meets raffish Princeton student Maxwell (Joe Anderson
). The fast friends wind up in New York's counterculture scene, along with Max's sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood
), and with a gaggle of musicians, artists, and radicals, navigate the kind of historical sixties tumult often seen in textbooks and TV miniseries. Along the way they encounter psychedelic gurus played by celebrity guests, like Dr. Robert (Bono) and Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard). This may start to sound like excess until you consider the restraint the screenwriters have shown in failing to include any characters named Michelle, Eleanor Rigby, Bungalow Bill, or Rocky Raccoon. Article continues below
The film's approach to storytelling -- a load of introductions, characters coming together and scattering in strife, vague characterization -- is typical of many stage musicals, and the all-Beatles-song-score in particular recalls the recent, unfortunate jukebox-musical trend in which pop artists' back catalogs are mined for cheesy sing-alongs. Yet as closely as Across the Universe resembles bad Broadway at times, Taymor -- herself a stage veteran -- understands the expanded possibilities of film musicals, and this surprising fluency lends the movie invention and occasional transcendence.
Most modern musicals either shy away from the inescapable (and fairly cinematic) influence of music videos, or employ clumsy MTV-style editing on otherwise unimaginative song-and-dance sequences. Taymor, taking a cue from Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge, crafts a half-dozen or so superb musical numbers (and many effective fragments) that would be technically impossible on stage, making good use of film's advantages of close-ups, editing, and visual effects.
These segments do right by their classic inspirations. "Strawberry Fields Forever" has overlapping images splattered in red, while "I Want You" (from Abbey Road) takes Max on a nightmarish, surrealistic trip from draft papers to the fields of Vietnam, ending with action-figure soldiers struggling to hold up the Statue of Liberty (the lyric of choice here is "she's so heavy" rather than "carry that weight"). It's not all overloaded bombast, either: Faithful covers of "I've Just Seen a Face" and "With a Little Help From My Friends" have youthful exuberance, while "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is made over as a song of quiet longing, as Prudence (T.V. Carpio
) sings about an objection of affection, making her slow-motion way through a field of gliding football players.
Unfortunately, this is Prudence's only shining moment; her character turns up in New York only to fade away, save for an obligatory run-through of "Dear Prudence." Even in her own song, she seems like an afterthought -- not an uncommon problem here. All of the actors are likable and charming but few are given personality; even the sweet central romance between Jude and Lucy is clothesline-thin. The film hews closely to that '60s textbook not just in its conflicts, but its characters' thoughts and feelings; you might wonder why they need such eloquent songs to explain themselves. In fact, I'd love to see a Beatles musical that reasserts the relevance and flexibility of their music by dispensing with the '60s milieu entirely; their amazing body of work hardly depends on Vietnam, race riots, or flower power.
But Across the Universe is not that movie, and within its chosen confines it is unreasonably enjoyable. Once acceptance that this will be a narrative of sixties touchstones kicks in, you might notice those notes being handled with care. Vietnam, for example, is approached with clever impressionism; we see only glimpses of the battlefield, and are spared that particular set of clichés in favor of a veterans-hospital rendition of "Happiness is a Warm Gun," unnerving and darkly funny in a way John Lennon might've appreciated.
Equally reasonable quibbles, fannish or not, will turn up. Taymor blows one opportunity by failing to turn "Hey Jude" into a showstopper; it builds, like the original song, but then trails off, like a radio edit, uncharacteristic of the film's fence-swinging ("Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" may actually get more screen-time). But by this point, Across the Universe either has you or it doesn't. It's not quite the masterpiece it could've been, but as an experiment, as entertainment, and as a tribute to the group's lasting inspiration, it works. Yeah, yeah, yeah.