Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is an imperfect film, but it’s still five-full-stars’ worth of imperfect film. The enormity of what it does achieve—combined with the impossibility of what it tries to achieve—makes it an essential film, regardless of its occasional missteps. There are more wholly successful films, but greatness is not always a matter of a smooth ride. I also suspect that it’s a film where repeat viewings will cause its faults to matter less and less.
In case you’ve been living in total ignorance of pop-culture happenings for some considerable time, this is Taymor’s picture of the 1960s as viewed through Beatles-colored glasses. The movie is 134 minutes long—about 100 of which are told through Beatles songs. Personally—though I admit I am purely of the Beatles generation—I can’t think of a better way to look at the ‘60s than through the Beatles catalog of songs. And I can think of only two filmmakers other than Taymor who could have pulled this off (or might have been foolish enough to try): Ken Russell and Baz Luhrmann. In fact, the specters of Russell’s Tommy (1975) and Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001)—along with Milos Forman’s Hair (1979)—hang over Across the Universe. I say this not to downplay Taymor’s accomplishment, but to put her film into context with other works of a not wholly dissimilar nature.
Beatles purists may be worried that the film desecrates the songs, and Lennon knows, it’s hard to get Michael Schultz’s abomination of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) out of your mind. That’s especially true for those of us who were there at the time Schultz’s film came out and were subjected to such arrogance as the Bee Gees claiming that they had finally recorded “Oh, Darling!” as it should have been recorded. What cheek! Here, however, you will find “Oh, Darling!” performed by Dana Fuchs—in a manner that is completely respectful of the original. This isn’t to say that the songs—and there are a lot of glorious songs to be heard in this film—are imitation Beatles, because they aren’t. Some of the arrangements and performances are quite different, but they’re clearly done with love and respect for the material. More, they’re used in a way that often heightens their relevance to the era.
Occasionally, the songs are even reimagined—something that in lesser hands could have been deadly, but which works here. It works, in part, because it makes you rethink songs about which you’ve perhaps become complacent. Turning the early upbeat Beatles standard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” into a ballad sung by a young lesbian, Prudence (T.V. Carpio), about a fellow cheerleader she’s in love with but to whom she daren’t even suggest her feelings, results in both a new vision of the song and one of the most heartbreaking pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen. It’s simply shatteringly beautiful.
The film’s storyline is fairly basic. It follows a young Liverpool ship hand, Jude (Brit TV actor Jim Sturgess), who jumps ship in America to find the father he never knew (Robert Clohessy, 16 Blocks). Circumstances team him up with a wild Princeton dropout, Max (Joe Anderson, Becoming Jane), and through Max he meets and falls in love with Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Max also takes Jude to New York where they fall in with a Joplin-esque singer, Sadie (singer Dana Fuchs), a Hendrix-esque guitarist, JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), and the aforementioned Prudence.
This, however, is merely the stage on which the sprawling musical drama is played as it travels through the decade, encompassing the Vietnam War, the draft, the antiwar movement, the art and music scene, mind-expanding drugs and attendant philosophies, the effects of the war etc. As the film draws to a close at the end of that decade, it invokes the perfect image of the end of the Beatles as an entity—and with the song that perhaps best encapsulates their message. I will be no more specific than that about the film’s ending, though it’s an ending I fear works better if you were there, or at the very least if you know your Beatles well and the chronology of their career as a group. (That could also be said of the film’s opening, which bookended with its conclusion covers the arc of the Beatles.) In that regard, Across the Universe is a film that may mean more to savvy Beatles fans than to less Beatles-centric viewers—though I’m sure the former will be happy to bring the latter up to speed after the fact.
This film is an experience that needs to be seen on a theater screen. You’ll regret it if you wait for the DVD on this one. Even the best home-theater system ain’t gonna cut it.
That said, I have no idea what Sony Pictures thinks it’s doing with this remarkable film. Its release has been dragged out over five weeks, and it didn’t open locally until this past Friday in Hendersonville and won’t open in Asheville until this Friday. (The people behind Sony, it should be noted, are the same marketing geniuses that decided to open The Jane Austen Book Club, a film that could barely carry a single venue, in five area theaters the same weekend!) But however you go about it, see this movie. If you love the Beatles, if you love bold, full-throated filmmaking, you owe it to yourself to catch Across the Universe.