Across the Universe (2007)
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther, T.V. Carpio, Eddie Izzard, Bono
Directed by: Julie Taymor
When I first heard that Julie Taymor was making a musical based on the music of The Beatles, I had mixed feelings. On one hand, I’m a big fan of their music, and thought Taymor was creative enough to make something really interesting out of it. On the other hand, movies based on the music of The Beatles that the group don’t appear in don’t exactly have a history of success. Plus, I’m not exactly a musical fan. But I figured that even if it wasn’t that good, it would probably still be visually interesting, and thus worthwhile.
Which basically proved to be an accurate assessment of the movie. It’s more visually compelling than it is actually compelling, a worthwhile endeavour for fans of the music and the genre with some scenes of genuine brilliance, but all in all, a flawed film that doesn’t quite match its own ambitions. The movie follows the lives of three young people in the 1960s named Jude (Jim Sturgess), Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), and Max (Joe Anderson) following their stories through the music of the biggest band of the era. They’re joined in their adventures in New York by Sadie (Dana Fuchs), JoJo (Martin Luther), and Prudence (T.V. Carpio) (I’m guessing the characters Penny and Eleanor were left on the cutting room floor).
The movie works with the dual conceits of the musical and that these 6 characters, and the music they perform, are symbols of the tumultuous decade and these two conceits often combine to keep the movie from engaging the viewer. Too often, especially early in the movie, the movie stumbles trying to work itself into these frameworks, keeping us from getting into the story or relating to the characters. The musical portion has the added burden of trying to establish the characters and story of the movie with music that wasn’t written with the idea of doing so. Most songs in musicals are written in service of the story, revealing the thoughts and plans of the characters through song and dance. It doesn’t work that way in Across the Universe, instead trying to shoehorn its characters and situations to songs written four decades ago, often awkwardly.
Moreover, Taymor seems more interested in interpreting different songs than she is in telling a story. Sometimes it works great, providing some truly interesting and dynamic scenes. Other times it feels forced and left me disinterested and disconnected. But as the film progressed and the characters are allowed a little room to develop in between musical numbers, the movie becomes more engrossing and the musical numbers more fantastic (of course, this also coincides with the years where The Beatles music became more engrossing and more fantastic). Particularly memorable were the “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and the “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” sequences, which completely disregarded the reality the movie had established and just went for broke in surrealist montages that matched the fun of the band’s music.
It’s scenes like those that make this flawed effort a worthwhile experience, especially for fans of the music. The performances and arrangements are mostly strong, invoking the spirit of the source material while creating something new for themselves. The story isn’t much to talk about, and the characters merely service the songs, making Across the Universe less a movie and more a loose collection of interpretative art and music videos, one that could’ve used a more strenuous editing process. But the areas it excels in raise the overall experience to a positive one, as long as you’re willing to forgive its missteps and aren’t already insulted by the idea that someone would dare mess with the original arrangements.