Seen today — Julie Taymor’s Beatles-themed musical, Across the Universe.
I’ve spoken in the past of my need to see this film. I think the phrase I used was, “I need to see this movie the same way I need oxygen.” With a viewpoint like that, one’s set up for disappointment, no?
Across the Universe isn’t a failure. It is, however, a bit of a mess. It’s a mess that works in places, doesn’t work in others, and then starts working again.
As an attempt to make a musical told using Beatles songs, Across the Universe succeeds. The songs used make sense; this isn’t just people singing Beatles songs to fill the time. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” becomes a song about unrequitted love — an amazing, and sadly true, reading of a song that I’d usually taken for a song about that first flush of infatuation. Across the Universe actually gets “Revolution” — that song has been so layered with meanings that John Lennon never intended, in part because of his own activities in the 1970s, but the song itself speaks to the pointlessness of revolution.
The music works, and most of the songs are staged incredibly well. I loved the way “I’ve Just Seen a Face” was handled. “Let It Be” is utterly haunting, especially for the juxtaposition of the two funerals.
There was one spot where I hoped they’d have broken out into “Two of Us,” one of my favorite Beatles songs, and something of an underappreciated gem. If you’ve seen the film, if you know the lyrics, you can probably figure out precisely the moment where it would have worked.
The problem I had with the film? It loses its emotional hold over the audience at about the halfway point. The film segues into some truly random imagery — first, Bono’s Doctor Robert enters the picture; then, Eddie Izzard’s Mr. Kite throws a carnival — and it doesn’t make any sort of sense. Yes, it’s visually stunning, but it’s also emotionally off-putting. The momentum the film had built dissipates. It’s as if the film is daring the viewer to like it, but it holds the viewer at bay. And when the film regains its footing, the emotional hold is gone.
Maybe that was the major cut Joe Roth of Revolution Studios wanted — cut the middle. Seriously, the film would have lost absolutely nothing if the Bono/Izzard sequences were gone. (Except they both feature pretty prominently in the trailer attached to Spider-Man 3 earlier in the year. As it is, a piece of dialogue I liked from the trailer — “Is she a part of your life?” “Lord, I hope so” — isn’t in the film. Fortunately, the line I really liked — “Music’s the only thing that makes sense anymore. Play it loud enough, keeps the demons at bay.” — was.) The first act of the film worked, the third act worked as well. It’s the second act where the more imaginative imagery overwhelms the story.
The film is shot astonishingly well. Taymor handles the camera with an artiste’s flair, and the scene staging is usually quite inventive and bright. I’d watched the “Hey, Jude” scene on Taymor’s MySpace page maybe a month and a half back, but that couldn’t prepare me for how it actually unfolded on screen. It was astonishing.
There’s a great deal of the directing that harkens back to the Beatles’ own films. Several scenes reminded me of Yellow Submarine (and not just the appearance by Blue Meanies). And the staging of the rooftop concert was handled similarly to Let It Be. (Though I wish that Sadie had said, “On behalf of the group and ourselves, I hope we passed the audition” when the police came and took them away.) And there was a moment that was downright Python-esque.
And the acting! I can’t fault any of it. The three main actors — Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, and Joe Anderson — were absolutely convincing with belting out Beatles lyrics at the drop of a hat. The supporting players, too, were good.
I liked Across the Universe more than I had faults with it. I was expecting it to grip me a little more emotionally than it did. The songs are handled well — and I would definitely recommend getting the two-disc version of the soundtrack. This isn’t some assault on the Beatles.
Have an open mind, and it’s an incredible achievement — telling a story using the words and music of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The Beatles have been the soundtrack for millions of lives these past forty years. Now, they’re the soundtrack for a story. Don’t you know, you better free your mind instead.
Final thought. And weird serendipity. Like I’ve said, coincidences just don’t happen to me anymore.
There’s a song that Lucy starts singing near the end of the film. She’s in a phone booth. She’s just gotten off the phone with her mother, and there’s about to be a giant peace demonstration/riot. Something smashes the glass of the phone booth — a bullet, perhaps? She’s stuck inside the phone booth, in the middle of the riot — she can’t get the door open. She sinks to the bottom of the phone booth, and she starts singing something softly. I could make out the words, but what song did they come from? I couldn’t place it. At all.
She was singing part of “Revolution” — “Alright, alright.” Over and over, as a mantra.
How do I know this? WordPress used to come with a plugin called “Hello, Dolly.” It would put a line from the song “Hello, Dolly” on the screens I see on the WordPress backend. Well, I had no use for that, so I stripped out the “Hello, Dolly” lyrics and dropped in the lyrics to “Revolution” instead. And what lyrics do I see, on my WordPress screen right now? “Alright Alright.”
Coincidence? You decide!
Seriously, Across the Universe is more than just a curiosity. It’s an interesting film, and an interesting achievement. It’s difficult to like the whole thing, but there’s enough in the film that works for me to recommend it.
Originally published here.