Across the Universe
The very first movie ever to feature sound was the ‘Jazz Singer’ back in 1927, a musical. Since then musicals have been a large part of cinema. They dominated the films of the fifties and sixties falling off somewhat in the eighties. Now they are back and bigger than ever. With the critical and financial success of ‘Moulin Rouge’ in 2001 there is new life in this old genre. There is also another trend that is mostly taking place on Broadway. Take the collective works of a musician and weave a little story line around the songs and create a musical. Plays featuring the works of Abba and Billy Joel still run on the Great White Way. It was only a matter of time until the two approaches to the musical collided and now they have. The latest film by director Julie Taymor, ‘Across the Universe’ takes the well known and beloved music of the Beatles and forms a love story out of it. While the film has a few notable mis-steps along the way over all it is a romp through out musical history. No group has had the degree of impact not only on music but our culture than the Beatles. In the sixties these four young men from Liverpool, England took the globe by storm and forever altered it.
The most familiar format used in the musical is to have the characters just suddenly break out in song. Taymor has a slightly different tack here. Almost everything in the film relates to the music. The characters are named after characters in Beatle songs. The sets illustrate the songs and even the little puns and off handed references are straight from the Beatles’ music. For example a character named Maxwell can be seen literally holding a silver hammer. A film like this could only work with a body of music so incredibly vast and well known. This is not merely a musical; it is a complete sensory experience. This movie does have potential that is unfortunately not properly tapped. One of the big factors that made the Beatles and their music so iconic was their ability to define the world they lived in. You can chronicle their journey through their music. They had their light hearted love songs, the psychedelic period and their politically motivated songs. They covered the gamut of feelings with their songs. The film makes an excellent try but some of the songs as presented here just don’t capture the magic that was the Beatles. With a film that impacts sight and sound as massively as this one you run the risk of sensory overload. This will be decreased somewhat with a DVD instead of a theatrical presentation. Owning the disc lends itself better to multiple viewings so you don’t feel obligated to try to get all the little references in one sitting. To this end Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is releasing this film in both DVD and Blu-ray formats. It may take going through this a few times but it will stand as a worth while work to have.
The film begins in the turbulent days of the sixties. In Liverpool Jude (Jim Sturgess) works in a ship yard but life is not satisfying. For one thing he has never met his father who according to his mother, Martha (Angela Mounsey) was an American solider named Wes (Robert Clohessy). Leaving behind his mom and girlfriend (Lisa Hogg) Jude sets out for the States. Once in America the trail leads Jude to Princeton where he meets Max Carrigan (Joe Anderson), a rebellious student from a very well off family. Jude also is introduced to Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) who immediately catches Jude’s eye. When Max drops out of college he and Jude decide to go to New York City to live the bohemian life style. Max gets a job driving a cab while Jude tries to make it as an artist. It does appear that everyone in the little rooming house they live is aspiring to be something. They landlady Sadie (Dana Fuchs) is a singer while another tenant JoJo (Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy) is a guitarist. Yet another tenant Prudence (T.V. Carpio) is an Ohio born lesbian who just got into town. After Lucy’s boyfriend is killed in Viet Nam she comes to the city to rejoin her brother and Jude. Romances start to blossom all around between Jude and Lucy and Sadie and JoJo. Lucy becomes extremely upset when Mac is drafted and sent to Viet Nam. Unable to think of another man she loves dying there she becomes involved with the growing anti war movement. This doesn’t sit well with Jude who prefers to keep away from political issues of any sort. Making matters worse is Lucy spending a lot of time with the radical group’s leader, Paco (Logan Marshall-Green). Meanwhile Sadie finally forms a band with JoJo as the guitarist. All of this love in the air just makes Prudence feel left out and alone. Sadie gets her big break when she is signed to a record label. The only catch is she has to drop her band including JoJo. This strains both their professional and personal relationships. Jude gets in a fight with Paco and almost lands in jail and the right amount of misery is dispensed before the Hollywood ending.
For those long time fans of musicals you might recognize a lot of the themes and sub plots used here. The draft board is right from Hair, a piece of sixties history as a play. As a movie, well, do bother. Then there is the sign the lead singer only if she leaves her friends behind. There are too many references here to site for this one. Another typical sixties thread is the rebellion against rich parents. For those of us around back then the poor little rich kids complaining about their parent’s money got tiresome unless you could talk them into buying what you needed. What matters here though is not the story, which is only needed to connect the music. This is all about the fabulous songs of the Beatles and in that quarter the film works very well. Having grown up listening to their music I admit that I had some trepidation with previewing this film. Those songs were perfect and covers of them usually fall flat. Much to my surprise and delight the presentation is a delight.
A light hearted romp like this seems strange to be so well directed by Julie Taymor. Her previous works included ‘Oedipus Rex’, ‘Titus’ and the award winning ‘Frida’, not exactly what you would call light. Ms Taymor does remarkably well in the direction here. The dialogue never gets in the way of the music. She knows that this is about the tunes and gives the audience what they came for. She also balances all the sight gags and inside Beatle jokes that abound throughout the film. The cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel provides a visual experience the likes of which have not been seen in a very long time. Many of the songs are given completely different interpretations from what you might expect. The most poignant is the rendition of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’. This is one of the earliest and must upbeat Beatles songs yet here as sung by T.V. Carpio it is a haunting ballad of longing and unfulfilled love.
Speaking of the cast there are more than a few surprises to be had here. I have been impressed with the acting abilities of Evan Rachel Wood ever since seeing her in ‘Thirteen’. I had no idea that her acting ability was matched with a get voice. When she sings ‘Blackbird’ it blew me away. She has range and control that tunes this classic song into something fresh. She can also move into more upbeat tunes as she does with ‘Hold me Tight’. Some of the best performances here are from the myriad of stars making guest appearances. Bono of U2 fame gives some great work with his versions of ‘I am the Walrus’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamond’. Joe Cocker was once well known for his cover of the Beatles song ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ but here instead of covering old ground he is given ‘Come Together’.
The DVD is released through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and is a must have for all Beatle fans. This is a reinterpretation of the classics that respects the free spirited originals. There are several ways to get this film on DVD. There is a Pan & Scan edition but with something so dependant on the visual you have to go with the original aspect ratio. That leaves you with either the anamorphic 2.40:1 DVD or Blu-ray version. All of the variations have a fantastic Dolby 5.1 audio that will rock your living room. Get it and enjoy it just don’t expect a story to follow.