When I was younger, I didn’t get the Beatles. What I mean to say is that I refused to accept that they were musical geniuses on the sheer fact that everyone else parroted such praise, and I rebelled against any interest in them whatsoever. Of course, by the time college rolled around and I was able to explore the Beatles catalog on my own, I pretty much came to the same conclusion as everyone else. I just had to find out for myself, that’s all.
Now I sit before you as big a Beatles fan as one can be (without being a rabid collector), and when I heard that Julie Taymor, whose “Titus” is a film I adore, was going to be making a musical entirely made-up of Beatles’ tunes, I was intrigued. Taymor is no slouch in the visual or artistic department, and as long as the heavy lifting is done by the music, it’s likely going to be an artistic triumph. Of course, like my earlier rebellion proved to be the wrong view, so too was my expectations for Taymor’s “Across the Universe.”
The basic story of “Across the Universe” is an exploration of the 1960s via the experiences of a few select Beatles reference-friendly characters. Fresh from Liverpool, Jude (Jim Sturgess) makes his way to Princeton to find his real father. Upon arriving on campus, he befriends Max (Joe Anderson), who eventually invites Jude home for Thanksgiving dinner. During this visit, Jude meets Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), and a love is sparked. The rest of the film involves the adventures of these core characters after they move to New York City and meet Janis Joplin-proxy Sadie (Dana Fuchs), Jimi Hendrix-proxy Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) and lesbian activist Prudence (T.V. Carpio). Go ahead, now you know the characters’ names, you can pretty much predict a number of the songs you’ll eventually be hearing.
Before I get into the real criticism of the film, I want to express that the acting is top-notch all around (even if Evan Rachel Wood made me wonder what happened to Dominique Swain, as they’re practically the same person). Those involved can sing their hearts out, they’ve all got an amazing energy about them and they all commit to the film they’re in. If only the film committed to them as strongly.
My overall criticism of this film involves a few blanket statements, the first of which is that “Across the Universe” is a film full of characters and forced plot, mentioned above, but with very little real conflict. The film seems to think that by placing these cut-out 60’s era stereotypical shadows of real people in that environment, that the conflict will just naturally emerge. The 60s means Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, drug culture and the ultimate full circle of the counter-culture. Who needs a real plot when you just inject characters into those scenarios, right? The problem this creates is that the film plays more like a loose history lessen, an after-school special, than a story worth emotionally investing in.
Overall critical statement two is that the music of the Beatles does not serve the film, but instead the film serves the music. In this way, scenes and characters exist solely so that Taymor can work in yet another Beatles’ song, whether it 100% works in the film or not. I guess it’s a case of thinking that the context of the film, again, is not the plot so much as the setting of the 60s, and therefore as long as the environment and imagery plays into that time period, you can fit any Beatles song in there you’d like, whenever you feel like it. And she does, to the point where I began to wonder if Taymor was going to fit every song from the Beatles’ catalog in there period.
This of course lends itself to a very long running time that can be a challenge to get through because, again, the plot isn’t as interesting as hearing the songs and since more and more plot is tacked on just to hear said songs… it just gets draining, and at that point you also have lost all interest in the characters. The film would’ve benefited greatly from the filmmakers selecting Beatles’ songs that elevated a great plot instead of just attempting to patch together surreal music videos for Beatles’ covers.
This service to the music does a disservice to the actors in the film as well, as they all seem to bring their A-game and are truly captivating… when they’re allowed to be. Unfortunately their real interactions with each other move from song to song so often that the chemistry fades and they become shadows of what they could be character-wise. When Jude and Lucy first meet, you really feel moved. By mid-film you’ve seen the two of them miming the same tired plot points over and over so often that you can’t even feel the spark that interested you in the first place, and you don’t get it back enough to care how the movie ends.
My final overall critical statement is that the film does not know what it is, tonally changing within and between structural acts. The First Act starts out almost a little too clever, with lyrics spoken and sung, setting a tone that reality would still rule while songs just happened within it (though not all the songs make sense, some are sudden and random). While the first 15 minutes are hit-or-miss, the film finds its stride when Jude arrives at Princeton and begins interacting with Max and Lucy. The songs become relevant to the dialogue and actions onscreen, and the chemistry between the actors truly elevates all the way through the introduction of all the major characters and the predominant setting of New York City. Act One closes and then all of Act Two becomes surreal and visually erratic, which is the tone that the trailers for the film have been selling the film as. Now songs aren’t natural so much as productions, set-pieces… in short, a departure from even the more awkward musical moments from the first Act. By the time Act Three rolls around, and the film settles back into the more realistic tone, you could care less what you’re going to see or how the film is going to resolve itself so much as wanting to just go home and listen to your Beatles’ albums.
As far as musicals re-purposing contemporary music, “Across the Universe” pales in comparison to “Moulin Rouge!” which seemed to commit to both the music and the art while allowing the two to complement each other. “Across the Universe” is more a mish-mash of good, bad and okay ideas taped together by brilliant music.
Essentially, “Across the Universe” is a visual mixtape of Beatles’ covers, and the covers are at least more accomplished than, say, the “I Am Sam” soundtrack. Since the film is really an excuse to listen to the Beatles, you’d be better served simply pulling out the old albums or putting your Beatles’ mp3 or CDs in a playlist on shuffle, because that’s where the real heart and feeling of the film exists, and you don’t need to have the film to feel something. The music alone can do that.