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October 13, 2007

Across the Universe

Okay. We start out with a confession. I was largely introduced to the music of the Beatles in 1987, via the movie Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, and George Burns. That movie is generally regarded with great disdain, and the careers of the Bee Gees and Frampton were never the same (though it may be a reverse causation). But hey, I was 12. It made an impression. When I think of the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, I still hear Dianne Steinberg and the Bee Gees in my head, rather than the Fab Four.

I moved on to discover the original versions of the songs on the soundtrack, and have come to an appreciation of not only the originals, but also a number of covers and re-inventions (George Martin’s 2006 remixes of the original tapes for Cirque du Soleil’s 2006 Las Vegas show Love is among my favorites).

I’ve been dying to see Across the Universe since I saw the trailer a number of months ago. It had a number of things I liked: singing, Beatles music, pretty girls, and looked like it had more depth than your average musical. And, while the tunes were familiar, the story was a rarity in today’s movie world: a musical that isn’t an adaptation of a Broadway show.

So I fully admit that I was predisposed to like Across the Universe going in. And I did like it. Just not as much as I wanted to.

First things first: Across the Universe is the story of Jude, a 1960s shipyard worker from Liverpool (of course) who signs up to work on a ship bound for America, then jumps ship and makes his way to Princeton to meet the father he never knew. There he meets Max, a frat boy who’s barely making his way through school. When Max brings Jude home for Thanksgiving, Jude becomes smitten with Max’s younger sister, Lucy, who has a boyfriend who’s enlisted and headed for Vietnam. (Beatles fans should be sensing a pattern in the names.) Max and Jude soon find themselves in New York City, renting a room from Janis Joplin-esque singer Sadie, along with guitarist Jo-Jo and runaway Prudence.

Jim Sturgess is immensely likable as Jude. His portrayal is well balanced, between the pragmatist who goes to meet his father just so that they both know the other exists, and the artist who fills his walls with charcoal sketches of the love of his life. Evan Rachel Wood (Once and Again) is luminously beautiful as Lucy, whether mooning over her soldier boyfriend, mourning him, or moving on. She has the acting chops to convey both the innocence of the young girl (“I don’t even smoke”, she tells her mother, trying to assuage her concerns about Lucy joining Max in New York for the summer) and the idealism of the woman she becomes.

The supporting characters have varying degrees of success with scarcely defined roles, with Dana Fuchs’ sultry Sadie and T. V. Carpio’s waif like Prudence standouts. Martin Luther McCoy’s Jo-Jo isn’t given much to do, and Joe Anderson’s Max, who could be an emotional touchpoint for the film’s Vietnam segments, instead comes off as extremely bland. Cameos by Bono (who channels Jack Nicholson as a Timothy Leary-type guru) and Joe Cocker (as multiple characters singing “Come Together) are very good. Salma Hayek looks sexy but has no dialogue as a nurse. Eddie Izzard (The Riches, Mystery Men), a performer who is good in almost everything he’s in, is atrocious as Mr. Kite, singing (or more accurately talking) his way through “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”. Even given the nature of the scene, which seems to be a circus viewed through an acid trip, his performance is jarring.

In fact, Izzard’s scene is indicative of my main problem with the movie: It’s all over the place. The film deals with the things you’d expect a 60s movie to deal with: Vietnam, the stateside protests, race riots, the psychedelic movement, and the balancing of art with social conscience. Unfortunately, it doesn’t deal with any of them in any particular depth. It seems as though a thematic element is introduced then either quickly resolved or simply forgotten.

Much has been made of director Julie Taymor’s fight with the studio regarding the final cut of the movie, and I had originally blamed the somewhat random and disjointed feel of the narrative on Revolution Films’ meddling with Taymor’s artistic vision, but in researching the conflict for this review, I discovered that, in the end, as with editing controversies on her previous films (Titus and Frida), Taymor prevailed, ending up with a cut that was only 4 minutes shorter than her original. There are only about 30 minutes of actual dialogue in the film, stacked up against 33 Beatles songs, including forceful versions of “Come Together” and “I am the Walrus”; an aching, Sapphic interpretation of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”; and a gospel-inflected “Let it Be”, along with more straightforward versions of “If I Fell”, “Blackbird”, and “Hey Jude”. Taymor introduces animated elements effectively in “I Want You”, and less so in the aforementioned “Mr. Kite”. All of the performers have standout turns and very good voices, especially Wood, Sturgess, and Carpio.

Admittedly, Universe will be an acquired taste, and based on the composition of the audience at the late show the night I saw it, it’s going to skew young. Which is fine; every generation needs its introduction to the Beatles. And while this movie might not be a musical for the ages, it’s no Sergeant Pepper either.

You can get a feel for the movie atYahoo movies, which has a trailer and 7 clips, and on YouTube, which has a number of clips (search for “Across the Universe”).

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