Pools of Boredom, Waves of Joy
Across the Universe / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | October 11, 2007 | Comments ()
Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, a musical consisting entirely of Beatles songs, is probably easiest to understand and explain in terms of the Beatles’ Love, the 2006 album that mashed up a variety of Beatles tunes that were used as the soundtrack to the Cirque du Soleil show of the same name. The album didn’t just remaster old songs, but tweaked them, buffed them, and rammed them into each other to create a new sonic experience that was both a (mildly) enjoyable novelty and a somewhat fresh spin on mix tapes. But as artistic achievements go, the album landed somewhere between honoring the original songs and, well, destroying them for the sake of selling Las Vegas tickets to baby boomers. That’s ultimately where Across the Universe winds up, in that unfortunate gray area between failure and success. Taymor, whose eye and daring vision also made Titus and her Broadway version of The Lion King stand out, tries to make her film a conventional musical and navel-gazing art film all in one, and the glories of the former are crippled by the indulgences of the latter. The music is fantastic and some of the songs’ interpretations are downright inspired, but Taymor tries to cover too much musical and cinematic ground, and in the process of overreaching turns her film from a sweeping pop love story into an extended quasi-psychedelic bad head trip.
The film opens with Jude (Jim Sturgess) sitting on what’s apparently the British shore, staring out at the gray waves before looking into the camera and singing the first few lines of “Girl.” (Taymor doesn’t actually name the character until maybe 20 minutes in, but trust me, this is Jude.) Sturgess evokes a young Paul McCartney, and his tenor, as well as Taymor’s decision to open with a scene of wistful lamentation, is more than a little reminiscent of Moulin Rouge. And just like the earlier film, Across the Universe uses the lyrics of its pop catalogue to advance the plot instead of simply having the songs act as tangential expressions of feeling that pause the story’s development. The best example of this is the film’s transition into the first of many musical numbers: “Hold Me Tight,” which plays out while Jude and his girl dance and sing to each other in a Liverpool nightclub and while Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), over in America, dances with her boyfriend at the prom. Taymor is working firmly in the realm of splashy, old school musicals, as the kids at the dance break into spontaneous choreographed dances and twirl under the lights, but she pulls it off thanks to the energy of the music and the skill of the singers. Sturgess is earnest and goofy and somehow sublimely happy, sounding for all the world like he was born to sing these songs, and Wood is surprising for the strength and sweetness she brings to her performance. I had no idea she could sing, let alone so well. It helps that she and Sturgess are belting out classics from McCartney and John Lennon, the two most influential pop songwriters of the 20th century.
Soon enough, Jude tells his girl he’ll be leaving for America, and sings “All My Loving” as he makes his way to New York and then to Princeton before falling in with Max (Joe Anderson), an intelligent but unmotivated student who pulls Jude into his circle of friends while they sing, predictably, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” With the exception of the opening numbers, the film pulls its songs mostly from the later-era Beatles recordings, eschewing the classic pop for the more progressive songs Lennon and McCartney wrote during the band’s most creative periods. But Taymor isn’t as interested in creating a musical that weds melody and story with staging what at times feels like history’s longest music video. There are approximately 31 songs used in the film, which is more than enough to cross the line from Beatles-fueled musical to overlong performance piece. There’s no discernible goal for the characters, or rather, the goal is so simple — boy loves girl, boy tries to hang onto her, credits — that Taymor loses her way in her desire to flesh out the film with unnecessary songs and sequences. Jude goes home with Max for Thanksgiving just so Taymor can have Jude and Lucy meet each other, and though she gets a good song out of it — Sturgess doing “I’ve Just Seen a Face” in a multicolored bowling alley, one of the film’s more rousing performances — the trade-off is the slowly lengthening plot. Jude and Max take off for New York to seek out life in the Village, and it would’ve been easier and more streamlined to have Jude and Lucy meet after the action had switched to the city.
From there, the film meanders its way through the 1960s and often feels like it’s playing out in real time, as the air of malaise and rebellion permeates the lives of the characters, who often seem to be self-consciously parading through an elaborately staged set piece instead of interacting with each other and being moved to sing by the love, hope, and youth coursing through their veins. The middle third of Across the Universe is by far the weakest, a rambling, boring exercise in vaguely experimental but really just annoying filmmaking as Jude, Lucy, Max, and the rest of their bohemian flatmates cruise through the country with the assistance of Dr. Robert (Bono…yes, that Bono), a countercultural figure who leads them on a trek of self-discovery that’s mind-numbing to behold. They somehow all wind up in the woods to see another counterculture figure, the pun-inspired Dr. Geary, played by Eddie Izzard, who offers a head-scratching and yawn-inducing performance of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” that’s all blue puppets and clunky CGI and the kind of random visuals that were seemingly pulled from an instruction manual on how to make a low-level impressionistic film that will fool the gullible into thinking it’s meaningful. Revolution Studios head Joe Roth has made some terrible films (his credits include Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise and Christmas With the Kranks), but he was wise to lobby for Taymor to cut the film from its current 2 hours and 11 minutes to a more palatable 1 hour 45 minutes, though why the longer cut is the one that went out to theaters, I cannot say.
Taymor handled the story with writing team Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Goal!, Flushed Away), and when she shows enough restraint to hold the story on track and keep it from devolving into relative absurdity, the characters’ struggles with love and abandonment in the face of a rioting nation and an uncaring government can be truly resonant and relatable. Max gets shipped off to Vietnam (“I Want You”), while Jude and Lucy find themselves falling in love (Wood’s tender “If I Fell”) in the middle of the antiwar movement. Jude’s howling rendition of “Revolution” is another of the movie’s small victories, and the film is at its best when the characters are allowed to mean what they sing and sing like they mean it. Sturgess and Wood carry the film with the love story of Jude and Lucy, and the moments when the story rests on their shoulders are the easiest and best. The film ends with “All You Need is Love,” complete with snatches of the chorus from “She Loves You” woven in, and for a moment the film is lighter than air, somehow impossibly hopeful and young and maybe even a little meaningful. It’s just too bad Taymor took so long to get there.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.