Across the Universe

Movie Information

The Story: A sprawling portrait of the 1960s anchored to a love affair between two young people and 32 Beatles songs. The Lowdown: An incredibly ambitious undertaking by filmmaker Julie Taymor that hits the target most of the time and is never less than fascinating.
Genre: Musical Drama
Director: Julie Taymor
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, T.V. Carpio
Rated: PG-13

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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20 thoughts on “Across the Universe

  1. Ken Hanke

    Update — local moviegoers might like to know that the film does indeed open at two Asheville venues on Friday, the Carmike 10 and the Hollywood 14.

  2. Adam Renkovish

    Saw it at Easley Cinemas 8 the other day – !!!! – and your review is spot on accurate. I loved this film, and I will go see it again before it leaves theatres.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Thank you. I’m now a certified junkie, having seen it four times already. And I’m sure that’s not the end of it.

  4. Kelly Homolka

    Thanks for your great review! We took the whole family (3 kids and grandma) to see this movie last night and we all LOVED it. Can’t wait to buy the soundtrack…I’d go see it again today if I could afford it.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Thank you.

    Fans of this movie and those who have yet to see it, take note that it expands back to four shows a day at the Carmike 10 on Friday — and will be moving back into a larger theater. However, with the holiday season in full swing and THE GOLDEN COMPASS opening in the 7th, I would not count on it being here after next Thursday. And you really do not want to wait for the DVD on this one.

  6. christiana

    I’ve seen it twice and the bugs that I thought were there seemed to melt away on second viewing.
    I have to say that your reviews are incredibly trustworthy. I don’t miss many of your five- starred recommendations. This is a definite beauty of a film.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Thank you. I quite agree about the film’s “bugs” melting away on a second viewing — and I’m way past a second viewing at this point.

    I took Don Mancini to see it when he was here for the film festival and I knew it had him when he leaned over after “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and said, “That was just beautiful.” Later, we discussed something that gets overlooked about the movie — the script. Granting that only about 30 minutes of the movie has dialogue, it has a remarkably good screenplay. Musicals are rarely known for their dialogue, but the dialogue here is really good — an even greater accomplishment when you realize how much it has to convey in how little space. Also overlooked to some extent are the performances by the largely unknown cast. Jim Sturgess’ facial expressions at the end of the film are as heartbreakingly true as Chaplin’s close-up at the end of CITY LIGHTS.

  8. Ken Hanke

    All good things must come to an end, so I have to tell you that ACROSS THE UNIVERSE finishes its run at the Carmike 10 this Thursday night (8 weeks is by no means a short engagement). It does, however, open at Asheville Pizza for the two evening shows starting Friday.

  9. Walt

    “Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe is an imperfect film, but it’s still five-full-stars’ worth of imperfect film.”

    Couldn’t agree more! This was one of the best 2+ hours spent in a movie theater this year.

  10. Ken Hanke

    “This was one of the best 2+ hours spent in a movie theater this year.”

    And I couldn’t agree more with that!

  11. Am I the only person who saw this and thought it was a big, overblown, awkwardly crafted, shallow-plotted, Beatles-only version of [i]Hair[/i], only without the originality and — I can’t believe I’m writing this — a cast with a talent level at least up to the snuff of Treat Williams.

    I watched [i]Across the Universe[/i] with my wife last weekend, and while neither of us are exactly raging Beatles fans, we were both looking forward to seeing how the songs were treated and how they were sewn into the narrative. At the end, we were both puzzled as to what was supposed to be so great about the thing, and why anyone liked it at all.

    Maybe it’s a generational thing, because it’s obviously resonating with people.

    To me, however, it just seemed like a trumped-up and gimmicky Broadway show inexpertly converted into a film. I didn’t care about the characters, the plot was barely existent, the acting was laughable in many cases (I’m looking at you Jim “The poor man’s Ewan McGregor” Sturgess) and the film never made much of a point other than a series of strung-together clichés that ended in a love I never really bought conquering a challenge that wasn’t very interesting, or, for that matter, hard to overcome in the first place.

    As a collection of moderately interesting music videos of Beatles covers, I guess it was OK, but standing on its own merit as a film, I thought it was definitively dull.

  12. Ken Hanke

    No, you’re not alone in this, but I disagree with everything you said.

    It is perhaps a generational thing, but I know an awful lot of folks younger than you who thought it was terrific. Now, as to whether or not they were responding to it in quite the same way us old folks did, I don’t know. I’m quite sure they weren’t appreciating certain things that Beatle generation people might — like the story arc roughly following the arc of the Beatles from the Cavern Club to the concert on top of the Apple building. Nor do I think they necessarily “got” the way in which certain aspects of the original recordings (Paul’s “Judy Judy Jude!” outburst in “Hey Jude” or his bit of “She Loves You” at the end of “All You Need Is Love”) were woven into the storyline. But they’re obviously getting something.

  13. [b]Ken:[/b] That’s just the thing. While I’m not a Beatles fan exactly, I’m familiar enough with their history to get the references and see the parallels. I caught a lot of those references, including many of the throwaway ones like Max being the kind of person that could “kill his grandfather with a hammer” or how Prudence “came in through the bathroom window.”

    But, apart from being a nod to a lot of the bigger songs that didn’t make it into the film, I kept thinking that the dialogue required to set them up seemed really forced (like having Prudence’s maybe-girlfriend be named Rita, for instance). It pulled me out of the film, rather than bringing me in.

    That said, I’ll gladly concede that I’m either missing something, or am simply not the intended audience for the film.

  14. Jenny

    I saw this film in the theater last fall, and have now purchased it for additional viewings (and sharing) at home. I freely admit I AM a product of the Beatles generation, and because of that thought would not enjoy the “bastardization” of their music in this film. Boy was I wrong.

    My intial reaction last fall was to leave the theater balling my head off. Thinking that the great many sacrifices made to heighten our awaresness of the stupidity of senseless war had all been for not. How could we have forgotten?

    In subsequent viewings I have become aware of what only seemed a dim sense after that initial viewing, that the parallels between this film and Hair are unmistakable. The love story (uptown girl/downtown boy) the fighting sequence, the hari krishas on the subway, the streets of NYC automatons, the lying in the field love fest, all of it. I am surprised we don’t hear more made of this tie it. It pays great homage to this musical produced during that era.

  15. HoneyJo

    Mr. hanke – I just read your review of another movie and a few idle clicks of the mouse brought me here. I totally agree with this review as well. This movie is a whole year old by now but I still love watching it and talking about it.

    You’re right, it was an imperfect film, and it sure had its fair share of flaws, but this was one of those moview that felt like a place I visited rather than just a movie I saw. I’m a lifelong Beatles fan, and I think that was a big part of it. My emotional connection to this music made me predisposed to the emotion in the film, and boy did it suck me in. I was crying like a baby by the end the first time I saw it.

    I’ve heard other people say it’s just another bad musical, like High School Musical, etc. I guess this is just one of those films that you either “get” or you don’t. but thanks for the insightful review.

  16. Ken Hanke

    I’ve heard other people say it’s just another bad musical, like High School Musical, etc.

    These same people might as well say that a Rene Magritte painting is just another picture like a panel out of a “Thor” comic book. Having just seen High School Musical 3 out of morbid curiosity (I didn’t review it), I feel safe in saying that the HSM things redefine bad musicals.

    I hadn’t thought of it, but, yeah, it is a year since this came out (but only a couple weeks since I had the DVD in the player). Unfortunately, there’s nothing of equal — even remotely equal — value in theaters at the moment this year.

  17. Jack Carney

    “Something”, from the movie. A very nice rendition of this song. Just wanted to mention that the correct line is:

    Don’t want to leave her now
    You know I believe AND HOW.

    I have the original sheet music for this published in 1969 by Harrisongs Music, Inc./Harrisongs Music LTD. and I had to dig it out to check.

  18. Ken Hanke

    There are a couple of changes in the film. There’s a dropped line from “If I Fell,” which had to go to fit the story. The only thing that bothers me is the missing bit from “I Am the Walrus,” which always jars me out of the film.

  19. HoneyJo

    Yes, isn’t there a whole verse missing from I Am The Walrus? It does kind of distract me as well. This segment, though, is really my least favorite part of the film. I could have done without the whole Dr. Robert, Mr. Kite bit and skipped right from the party to the Because segment (and I thought it was a really cool touch, by the way, that when Taymor put them all in a circle singing Because, arms and legs overlapping, Jude and Lucy are the only two in the circle who aren’t touching anyone else but each other).

    I don’t know if the little change in the Something lyrics was intentional or a mistake, but to tell you the truth, I don’t really care what words Jim Sturgess is singing in the Something number. His voice isn’t as sweet or agile as George Harrison’s, but his delivery is so sincere and so full of passion, it’s kind of breath-taking. Few things are quite as romantic as a man admiring and adoring us and our body in a beyond-the-physical, non-creepy way. This scene epitomizes that. It’s been compared to the sketching scene in Titanic, but I think it’s less visceral and more cerebral, more soulful and “of the heart” than the Titanic scene. The Titanic scene is more of the spontaneous combustion of a newfound passion, and the Something scene is more of a settling in, more of Jude taking a moment to count his blessings and realize just what he’s got, physically, mentally and emotionally.

    Just my 2 1/2, ok, maybe 3 cents!

  20. Ken Hanke

    Yes, isn’t there a whole verse missing from I Am The Walrus?

    Yes, but I can’t think what the gap is right now.

    I could have done without the whole Dr. Robert, Mr. Kite bit and skipped right from the party to the Because segment

    I definitely wouldn’t want to lose “Mr. Kite,” but in any case I think you’d need something for a bridge there for it not to feel like there was a jump in the narrative.

    It’s been compared to the sketching scene in Titanic

    The big difference for me is that I believe the scene in Across the Universe?

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