**/**** Image A Sound A Extras A-
starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs
screenplay by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais
directed by Julie Taymor
by Bryant Frazer Long considered sacrosanct, in recent years the catalogue of music recorded by The Beatles has become fairer game. The success of a 2000 CD reissue of #1 singles may have greased the wheels for Beatles-related projects, including a 2006 Cirque du Soleil extravaganza based around the group's songs and mounted in Las Vegas, a comprehensive four-year-long digital remastering project involving all the original albums, and even a Beatles-only edition of the hit videogame series Rock Band. In this context, Across the Universe feels like a cog in a much bigger marketing machine. To some degree, it's impressive that director Julie Taymor managed to build a period-romance-cum-rock-musical entirely around Beatles songs, although the film never manages to answer the question of why such a project might be worth undertaking in the first place.
Taymor's big concept is to use Beatles music to stage lavish visualizations of that fabled epoch in American history, the '60s. Song-and-dance set-pieces reference the Vietnam War and the Draft, protests at Columbia University, and the generally druggy haze associated with the era. The problem is that Taymor's approach to these well-worn tropes, while eccentric, doesn't put a sufficiently personal spin on them. What's more, along with the use of Beatles songs--Taymor apparently had access to their entire oeuvre--came the idea that the lyrics contained therein had to make some kind of narrative sense. The solution Taymor came up with, in collaboration with the screenwriting team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (The Commitments), was to take an excessively literal approach. The result is a movie about love in a late-1960s New York City populated by young bohemians with names plucked from the Beatles songbook: Jude falls in love with Lucy, Prudence climbs into Sadie's apartment through the bathroom window, et cetera. Sure, it's amusing for 10 minutes or so, but eventually you start to wince whenever fresh characters are introduced.
Across the Universe does have blessedly weird moments. There's the "Happiness is a Warm Gun" musical number with five dancing Salma Hayeks rolling around the VA ward in sexy-nurse garb. There's the cheerleader who performs a wistful rendition of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as football players are violently tackled all around her. There's a warbling Joe Cocker, fingering an inchoate air-guitar riff to the strains of "Come Together." Unlike, say, Chicago, it's never outright boring. The new arrangements of the classic tracks are a little too minimal and adult-contemporary for my taste, but the choreography by Daniel Ezralow is dynamite. Minute for minute, those dance pieces, imagined in three dimensions and often shot from peculiar angles, are the best thing on screen--the one good reason for spending more than two hours in Taymor's cliché fantasia. But they're also tangential indulgences, and they're wearying, especially in the context of a sprawling, unfocused historical romance that could use a bit less expansiveness.
The film opens on two continents, telling the soon-to-intertwine stories of Lucy Carrigan (Evan Rachel Wood), a poor little rich girl from a big house in the suburbs, and Jude (Jim Sturgess), a Liverpudlian dockworker setting sail for America. Jude ends up at Princeton and once there quickly befriends Max (Joe Anderson), Lucy's brother. Max and Jude make a break for New York City, where they room with singer Sadie (the full-throated Dana Fuchs, an obvious Janis Joplin surrogate), guitarist Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy), and lesbian Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a refugee from Ohio. Every character is under pressure in some way, chiefly Lucy, who falls in love with Jude but gets entangled with a radical crowd that earns his scorn, and Max, who's shipped off to war.
The story has been tooled to ease in and out of various Beatles numbers, and Taymor labors to make every familiar title generate new symbolism. Sometimes the results are clever. The friction between politically-aware Lucy and artistically-inclined Jude is dramatized in the animated setting for "Strawberry Fields Forever," which envisions the blood-coloured fruit as bombs and hand grenades going off in a war zone. "I Want You" is recontextualized as an army recruitment song, with Uncle Sam posters coming to life and mouthing the chorus. The transition to "She's So Heavy" facilitates the film's single most outré moment, as the scene shifts to the jungles of Vietnam, seen in miniature as oversized U.S. soldiers tramp palm trees into the ground while carrying a large model of the Statue of Liberty on their shoulders. It's a pretty strange image for a big, romantic musical--a little obvious as metaphor, of course, but more than on point in a contemporary context.
Alas, the already episodic narrative turns even more splintered as the main story evidently fails to provide enough pretext for staying on concept. During an acid-dropping trip to what looks like an intensely-furnished book-signing party, the cast meet the Ken Kesey-inspired Dr. Robert (Bono), who sings "I Am the Walrus" and drives them out to the middle of nowhere, at which point they encounter Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard, engaged in a pas de deux with a SteadiCam operator who can barely keep up) for another elaborately-conceived music video that, though great fun in its own right, is just another whacked-out set-piece in a fragmented agglomeration of whacked-out set pieces, each one another garish signpost on a tediously-routed journey through the past.
At least the bulk of the musical numbers give us an excuse to watch the core ensemble, by and large a handsome bunch. Much has been written about the effortless charm of Sturgess, who appears here with soulful eyes, a boyishly round jaw, and what Dave Eggers once referred to as Westerberg hair. You just want to give him a hug. Wood,18 at the time of filming, is not quite as cute, but does have a better complexion. In the setting for "Because," the two of them embrace, nude, underwater, as the supporting players gambol in the corners of the widescreen frame surrounding them. It's a nice moment, and one of the signature images in a film that gets much wilder as it goes along.
As a whole, unfortunately, these images don't add up to much. Taymor waffles on the question of Jude's refusal to consider social issues, seeming first to scold him for the lack of engagement that leads Lucy to leave him, then to congratulate him on his ability--channelling John Lennon singing "Revolution"--to peg Lucy's resistance guru, a bearded orator named Paco (Logan Marshall-Green), as a violent radical. At the end of the film, a Let It Be-style rooftop concert figures in Jude's plans to be reunited with Lucy, leading the film to exactly the romantic happy ending you'd expect. In this context, "All You Need is Love" is surely comforting, but also so reductive as to be nearly meaningless. (Setting a gospel-choir arrangement of "Let It Be" against tableaux of racial violence is similarly unhelpful.) It's a dispiriting place for a movie to go after spending so much time depicting surreal visions of war, death, and rioting in the streets, not to mention the artist's quest for meaning--but, given the restrictive rules of the game, it's probably all that could be hoped for. Nobody wants to see a Beatles musical where the boy doesn't get the girl in the end.
In the bonus materials on the DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film, Taymor talks Across the Universe up, with great earnestness, as a message movie. "I really want young people to see the passion in this movie," she says. Later, she adds, "We need to be reminded of those times." Well, there's your problem: Films need filmmakers, not schoolteachers, and this one has too much of that lesson-plan feeling about it. Still, there are enough singular moments of lush indulgence that I'm glad I had the chance to see it. I can't say it's a terribly good movie, but I can't help being happy it exists.
|Click for hi-res BD captures|
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Sony has issued Across the Universe in a fully stuffed Blu-ray edition with one exclusive feature: a gallery slideshow of work by Don Nace, the artist behind Jude's drawings in the film. Unfortunately, these sketches are displayed in a small window in the middle of your screen instead of enlarged to take advantage of full HD resolution, but it's a nice gesture. Also on board are a single deleted scene and a raft of "extended musical performances," all in HD and Dolby Digital 5.1. The soundmixes for these appear to be complete, though the picture is of slightly lesser quality than the rest of the film, particularly in scenes with bright contrast or, moreover, saturated reds. The deleted scene, "And I Love Her," is a short (52s) treatment of the song by the same title that fleshes out the relationship between Jojo and Sadie. The extended musical performances playlist (35 mins.) comprises eight different songs from the film, each of which contains a snippet or more of additional footage. The extended "Come Together" is a highlight, as is a subtly recut version of "Something." (The latter boasts a few more glimpses of Wood's left nipple, which, perhaps to obtain a PG-13 rating, was cropped and/or blurred out of shots that are restored here.) Closing out this section of the disc is "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," a feature that includes two alternate single-camera takes of Izzard's largely ad-libbed performance among the Blue Meanies. It's in HD and Dolby Digital 5.1 and worth a looksee.
Documentary featurettes are plentiful, what with five shorts totalling about 87 minutes. All are encoded in HD and utilize varying aspect ratios within the 16x9 native frame. "Creating the Universe" (29 mins.) is your typical making-of doc, compiling interviews with Bono, sound mixer Tod Maitland, producer Matthew Gross, and many more. It starts off with a lot of puff about how terrific Taymor is but gets more substantial as it proceeds. From what we're allowed to see of her, Taymor actually does seem awfully nice and unpretentious, although she spends a lot of time explaining in very basic terms what we see in the film, as if it's difficult to figure out what she's thinking. (It's not.) But it is interesting to see her interacting with her actors in rehearsals and on those crazy, crazy sets. "This is the trippiest day of my entire life," Evan Rachel Wood remarks to the camera at one point. Indeed. "Stars of Tomorrow" (27 mins.) is basically the same M.O., this time with the goal of making you realize how damned talented the actors are. It's missable, though Wood and Sturgess fans will enjoy the extra footage of those crazy kids goofing off in street clothes.
"All About the Music" (15 mins.) goes over the music production process with lots of contributions from Elliot Goldenthal, who nicely observes at one point that a Beatles song is "like a mini solar system." The short offers a fairly thorough consideration of the arrangements and a few diverting glimpses of the studio sessions. "Moving Across the Universe" (9 mins.) focuses on choreographer Ezralow, who talks about taking inspiration from everyday life in New York City, as well as rethinking 1960s dance styles for "the bodies of today." It's good stuff. Finally, the oddly titled "FX on the Universe" (7 mins.) is really just a long interview with ace designer Kyle Cooper, probably still best known for his work on the opening titles for Se7en; he handled some of Across the Universe's graphics, compositing, and other FX work.
Appending the film is an audio commentary with Taymor and music producer/composer Goldenthal. Beatles fans will be interested to hear their detailed comments on the subtle combinations of music with the film's sound effects, like the bass line of "Come Together" merging with the thrum of a pair of windshield wipers. Taymor discusses many of the tactics for recording vocals on set, historical reference materials that were used, and period-accurate locations that were secured for the film. Still, for my taste, she spends too much time essentially narrating what we're already seeing on screen. (She also comes across a tad defensive over the film's incessant, sometimes cringe-inducing, inside references to Beatles song titles and lyrics, as if she's taken a lot of grief for it.) Non-North American viewers, take note: the commentary is subtitled in Korean, and only in Korean.
The disc is blessed with the sort of awesome transfer (2.40:1, 1080p) that is, happily, typical of Sony releases, with an appropriate light dusting of film grain throughout. HD is clearly the most appropriate format to render the unusual look of Across the Universe, which crushes its backs and leans heavily towards greens and yellows, especially early on. (The setting for "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is a high-school field where the football players and the cheerleaders are actually dressed in green-and-yellow school colours, a decision I read as an inside joke relating to an unconventional colour palette that sometimes made me feel like plucking out my eyes.) The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack (English only; Portuguese and Spanish listeners get Dolby Digital 5.1) is similarly outstanding, the muscular mix pushing some instrumentation--like the yowling guitar on "Oh! Darling," or the children's voices in "Hey Jude"--firmly into the surround channels. Bass is tight, vocals and dialogue are unusually well reproduced, and the soundstage is generously room-filling, albeit not aggressively so. Taymor had her disagreements with her studio bosses during production and post, but any hard feelings or misgivings anyone had certainly did not extend to the home-video release. This is a really terrific Blu-ray package. Originally published: August 14, 2009.