Across the Universe,
directed by Julie Taymor
(Sony, 2007)

Across the Universe is an unusual film.

Built around pieces of Beatles songs and performed in a variety of musical styles, the movie is in many simply a 2-hour music video. There's not a huge plot here, for all that the story is intertwined with big issues of the late 1960s such as the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and social unrest and protests across the country. But, once you focus on the major characters, it's really just a basic love story.

Not that the Beatles would have minded, I suspect, since that was the basis for many of their songs. (By all accounts, the surviving Beatles and Beatle widows gave the film a hearty stamp of approval.)

The story centers around Jude (Jim Sturgess), a lad from Liverpool who tramps across the sea to find the American father he never knew, and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), an all-American girl who bids farewell to her boyfriend as he ships out to Vietnam, where he is soon killed in action. They meet after Jude befriends Lucy's brother, Max (Joe Anderson) at Princeton; soon, everyone is living in New York and steeping in the culture and counter-culture of the city.

They end up renting rooms from Janis Joplin-ish singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs), and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), an in-the-closet lesbian/cheerleader, comes in through the bathroom window after exiting a bad relationship. Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), seeking a new path after his younger brother dies in the Detroit riots, ends up playing guitar for Sadie, and ... oh heck, there are a lot of people in this movie. Those are the main ones you need to keep track of.

There are also plenty of cameos, some bigger than others, including Joe Cocker as a bum, pimp and hippie, Bono as spiritual guide Dr. Robert, Eddie Izzard as performer Mr. Kite and Salma Hayek as a singing nurse.

The love story has its ups and downs, as all love stories must, and the plot draws heavily from the lives of the Beatles as well as elements of the lyrics of about 30 Beatles songs used in the score. The film also takes some daring chances with many visual elements, thoroughly reflecting the '60s dynamic.

The big question in a movie like this is, how well did they perform the songs? The answer is, for the most part, pretty good. There are a few weak ones here and there, but overall, I really enjoyed these takes on Beatles classics.

The movie opens with a brief snippet of "Girl," sung coyly by Jude, before breaking into Sadie's ripping rendition of "Helter Skelter." Some of the best songs in the movie include "If I Fell," "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," "Dear Prudence," "Hey Jude," "All You Need is Love" and, of course, "Across the Universe." There are others that stand out, but those are the ones standing out to me now.

"Let It Be," performed by Carol Woods and Timmy Mitchum, is simply chilling. I won't say any more about that scene here.

In overall theme and presentation, it feels at times like the Beatles filtered through Pink Floyd; certainly the movie's style falls closer to The Wall than it does Hair, even though it's from Hair's generation. (And let's just forget about Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- the 1978 movie, not the album -- entirely.)

Ultimately, I enjoyed it. Across the Universe is a flawed movie, but it's quirkily endearing all the same. And, for the moment at least, some of their versions of the songs keep running through my head.

And I don't mind.

review by
Tom Knapp

25 February 2017

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