Jude is a dock worker in Liverpool, England looking to get more out of life. Lucy is a disillusioned American college student, looking for something to believe in as the 1960s draw to a close. Prudence came into their lives through the bathroom window. And JoJo was a man who thought he was a loner, but he knew it wouldn’t last.
Based on the music of the Beatles, Julie Taymor’s ‘Across the Universe,’ aims to tell it’s story in broad sketches during the same time in history that the Beatles reigned supreme over music.The story is a simple one. Jude comes to America to find his father and meets up with Max, a day-dreaming academic, who finds himself drafted by the US army with no way out. Meanwhile, Jude falls in love with Max’s sister, Lucy. They all take up sharing an apartment with Sadie in New York’s Greenwich Village. Prudence is an bi or maybe homosexual friend who crashes with them after a row with her current paramour. And Bono (of U2) plays a Timothy Leary-type Dr. Robert, who advocates tuning in, turning on, and dropping out.
If it sounds like something you’ve heard before, it’s because you have. The movie foregoes original plotting, in an effort to tell everyone’s story and to let Taymor’s visuals carry the film along.
If only it were that easy. The movie’s first hour is strong and exciting. The reinterpretations of the music you know every note of is fresh, inventive and not frightened of screwing with songs that so many consider sacred text. From the longing take on ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ to the excited ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face,’ the movie bounces along, blissfully unaware of how it’s handling of the songs might be taken.
However, things turn ugly in the second half, as the storyline darkens, requiring the music to do things its writers never intended. ‘Revolution,’ with it’s ‘Don’t you know you can count me out… in…’ seems to be one of the worst handled of the songs, with Taymor stripping from it any of the humor, and glee in anarchy that John Lennon put into it and instead, making it a solemn-faced denouncement. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ is turned into a longing, angsty little ditty. It becomes more and more frustrating, seeing what is done to this music as the story progresses.
Taymor’s visuals are, for the most part, excellent. ‘I Want You,’ is cast as a draft cry, with the Uncle Sam from the poster singing it as Max is poked, prodded and selected for service. ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun,’ is projected as a drug-fueled shell-shocked Busby Berkley number with Salma Hayek as a seductive head nurse.
While it’s fun to see the bright colors and the camera spin all over the place, what matters are the characters and they are given such short shrift in the movie that there’s so little to talk about. Jude’s only success as an artist is being hired to create a record label for Sadie. It is his smashed strawberry, which adores the soundtrack and movie poster and DVD case. For a band that was so much about peace and love and kindness, should the main character in a movie based on their music really be excited about a corporate art gig?
As much as the movie excites with the visuals, the empty story will leave you walking away from it shaking your head, wondering how they could have dropped the ball with such great material to start with. Because of all the pomp that Taymor adorns everything with, ‘Across the Universe,’ is a case of the clothes having no emperor. -Sam