Across the Universe is a real accomplishment, for both film and music.
Conceived, produced and directed by the eclectic Julie Taymor, this film is a romantic musical that incorporates parts of 34 songs composed by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and the three of them plus Ringo Starr (“Flying”). Most of the songs are sung on-screen by the characters, though there are some instrumentals. This places the film in the category of old-style musicals where people seem to burst into song as a part of the story. To everyone’s credit, it actually seems to work very well indeed.
The story concerns Jude (Jim Sturgess), a young dockworker in Liverpool who goes to the United States to look for his American father (who had a fling with his mom during World War II. The very first few frames of film show Jude sitting on a beach singing Lennon and McCartney’s “Girl,” an auspicious beginning because it also tells us that we are not going to be sitting through “copies” of Beatles’ songs. Throughout the entire movie, pretty much every song has been reinterpreted and rearranged which gives them all a brand new and exciting feel.
The movie is definitely concerned with the radical changes brought about during the turbulent 1960’s. Jude provides an outside perspective, while his girlfriend, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and her brother, Max (Joe Anderson) provide the viewpoint of America’s youth. Max drops out of college and gets drafted. While waiting for his induction, the three of them go to New York where they become embroiled in the hippie scene. The other major characters are Sadie (Dana Fuchs), Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy), and Prudence (T. V. Carpio). Where Sadie reminds one of Janis Joplin, Jojo reminds us of Jimi Hendrix.
An accomplished artist, Julie Taymor brings a sophisticated and stimulating range of graphic beauty to the film, not only in the psychedelic sequences, but in almost every scene. I’ll never forget the way she illustrates “Strawberry Fields Forever” by having Jude pin strawberries to canvas, literally bleeding against the white, while a television shows Max in Vietnam singing with Jude and even superimposed over his face. Another sequence that really carries a punch is Max’s physical in which grotesque sargents stamp out the recruits to “I Want You/She’s So Heavy” with giant troops carrying the Statue of Liberty above them as they stomp on palm trees in Southeast Asia. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is full of great images, camera tricks, and bizarre imagery reminiscent of the Beatles own movie Magical Mystery Tour.
All of the young actors are superb, giving heartfelt performances and wonderful vocals. The film is also spiked with a special performance of Bono as Dr. Robert and Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite, as well as great cameos by Salma Hayek and Joe Cocker.
It’s one of those films you excuse for running a little long because it’s all worth it. Great music reinterpreted, fine acting, an excellent script, great direction, and unbelievable graphic art. I will definitely see it again and again.