Starring: Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Joe Anderson, Dana
Fuchs, Martin Luther, Bono, Eddie Izzard. Rated PG-13.
A few thoughts from a recent screening of Across
Julie Taymor’s latest would be better suited to the stage
than screen, where its lavishly choreographed song-and-dance numbers and
elaborate sets would easily overshadow its unexceptional story and needless
indulgences. We’ve all heard the one about the wild children of the ’60s who
rejected the stodgy conservatism of their parents’ generation and embraced
revolution – at least for a time. Re-imagining that story as a musical set
entirely to the music of the Beatles (and performed by the likes of Bono and
Joe Cocker) is ambitious but, in the end, a noble failure.
John Lennon was nearly deported in 1972,
after his brazen
antiwar activism aroused the ire of then-President Richard Nixon. He was spared
that indignity, but Jude (Jim Sturgess), the working-class, Liverpudlian hero
of Across the Universe, isn’t so lucky. Despite his own distaste for
revolution, Jude gets caught up in the radical protests favored by his
girlfriend, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). His reward is a broken heart and a one-way
ticket back to the shipyards.
At more than two hours, Across the Universe stretches its
already thin premise to the breaking point, which might explain why Sony
Pictures insisted that its acclaimed director accept a shorter cut. (She
didn’t.) It’s bad enough that Taymor’s story, written with longtime
collaborators Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, is simply a collection of
hallucinogenic fantasies and era-specific clichés tenuously connected by
Beatles hits. There are whole sections of the film – a psychedelic road trip to
California featuring Bono’s forceful version of "Magical Mystery Tour,” for
instance – that feel like MTV-style music videos, rich in style but curiously
With a cast of characters drawn almost exclusively from
Lennon and McCartney’s songbook – even Mr. Kite makes an appearance to provide
visual fodder for Jude and Lucy’s acid trip – Taymor cannot resist the urge to
make passing nods to other ’60s superstars, namely Jimi Hendrix and Janis
Joplin, as represented by JoJo (Martin Luther) and Sadie (the dazzling Dana
Fuchs). Was there no room for Bob Dylan? Jim Morrison? Jerry Garcia?
One character, Prudence (T.V.
Carpio), exists solely to
justify a reprise of the White Album’s “Dear Prudence.” The rest of the time,
she gazes longingly at her would-be conquests, eager to explore her unspoken
but clumsily obvious passion for women. Then she runs away to join the circus.
Whither Eleanor Rigby?
Taymor, whose credits include Titus, Frida
mega-hit Broadway production of The Lion King, entices her onetime lead Salma
Hayek into a brief but memorable cameo during a rousing take on “Happiness is a
Warm Gun.” (Other musical highlights include Cocker’s “Come Together” and a
powerfully soulful rendition of “Let It Be.”) Elsewhere, her film is a visual
triumph but an epic endeavor – the retelling of an entire decade, in the words
of its greatest pop icons – that was probably doomed from the get-go.
When it works, it is compellingly
watchable, but this isn’t
a story so much as an experience. The narrative is disjointed and deliberately
incomprehensible at times, and though its soundtrack will undoubtedly introduce
a new generation to 33 of the most memorable pop songs ever written, Across
the Universe isn’t about to make anyone forget those Beatles originals. It is
whimsical silliness, imaginatively constructed but precious and gratingly