Across the Universe

Across the Universe

Film review by: Witney Seibold


            I recently wrote an essay on Shakespeare in film, and I cited Julie Taymor’s first feature “Titus” as a triumph of the genre. Taymor is a talented director, and an endlessly creative designer. Her design and staging of classic plays such as “Oedipus Rex” and “The Tempest” are fascinating and dark and violent and wonderful. She seems to derive power from the primitive images of ancient cultures, and the primitive violent impulses of the human soul. She may be best known as the director of the stage version of “The Lion King,” which, from what I hear, had a dull story and insipid music, but was still a delight to look at.


            Taymor’s newest feature, “Across the Universe,” her third, has beautiful staging, great music, and is rife with a warm camaraderie usually found on play sets when stalwart casts and crews work together for a long time. The cast and the crew of “Across the Universe” obviously had an intensely wonderful time staging and performing new interpretations of The Beatles’ songbook. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” becomes a tragic quiet yearning of a closeted lesbian. “I Want You” becomes a creepy pro-military edict (that could have come straight from “The Wall”). Eddie Izzard performs a surreal performance art version of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” “Hey Jude” becomes a plea across the Atlantic for Jude to return to America. Some of The Beatles’ songs which have notoriously defied definition, like “I am the Walrus,” remain oblique in this film, although Bono’s singing of it was first rate. The finale song is nothing less than “All You Need is Love.”


            I loved many of the musical numbers in this film, and I deeply appreciate Taymor’s creativity and gusto with her surreal and theatrical approach to cinema. The cast was talented and fun, and the setting (late 1960s America) did not alienate the musical material.


            But, darn it, “Across the Universe” was still not a great film. Some of the literal interpretations of Beatles lyrics felt oblong and forced. Some of the images were blazingly obvious (at one point, young soldiers in underwear lug a giant Lady Liberty through a Vietnamese battlefield, groan), and the references to Beatles lyrics within the dialogue (“…when I’m 64” “I dunno, she came in through the bathroom window” Maxwell uses a silver hammer) felt less like clever conceits, and more like bad puns. The characters are even named from Beatles lyrics (Lucy, Jude, Prudence, Maxwell, JoJo, etc.). Indeed, large parts of the story in general seemed largely unnecessary.


            The story (which will seem familiar if you’ve seen “Hair”): A Liverpudlian dockworker (and aspiring illustrator), Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels to America in the late 1960s to find the father he’s never known. He finds his father, but bonds with a local student named Maxwell (Joe Anderson) instead. He also quickly falls in love with Max’s pretty blonde sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). They all move to a flat New York with Sadie (Dana Fuchs) a Janis Joplin stand-in, JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy) a Jimi Hendrix stand-in, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio) a lesbian whose part seems to have been larger in the original cut. They live a warm hippie commune existence, playing music and causing mischief in that subversive ‘60s way. But the idyll is broken by the Vietnam War. Max is drafted, Lucy becomes a radical protestor, Sadie sells out, and Jude just wants to hang out and be in love and draw.


            The film is 131 minutes long, which is 40 minutes shorter than Julie Taymor’s intended cut. Perhaps those 40 extra minutes will flesh out the story a bit, which takes a lot of time off for songs and musical numbers. But I think the literal application of a dramatic story to the familiar lyrics of the oft-overused Beatles is less a revolutionary idea (like with The Beatles’ own “A Hard Day’s Night”) and more of a gimmick (like with, oh, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”). See the utterly horrific “I Am Sam” for a more vivid portrayal of this, or even my recent review of the 1976 curiosity “All This and World War II.” If “Across the Universe” had been on a stage, it would have been phenomenal. As it stands, it’s a beautiful, musical, creative, glorious, thudding chunk of weirdness that, as a whole, doesn’t seem to fit anywhere.

             “Across the Universe” is not an atrocity like the sloppy karaoke madness that was “Moulin Rouge;” I would even say “Across the Universe” is definitely worth a look, especially for people who are not too familiar with The Beatles’ songbook. I saw it with my girlfriend and a close friend of ours, both of whom are intimately familiar with The Beatles. They both hated it.

Published in: on September 17, 2007 at 9:28 pm  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: