Monday, September 28, 2009

Lip Service: Across the Universe

[Apropos of nothing, except that I caught this on TV and found myself familiarly puzzled, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

To look at the complete collection of songs by The Beatles is to appreciate especially two things: the music’s excellence and its diversity. In this respect, the lads from Liverpool remain in a class all their own. The Beatles made hits out of both poppy cute material and thoughtful somber fare, out of tunes just over 2 minutes long and others than span more than 7, out of songs straightforward and unflinchingly literal and others so psychedelically strange that they seem to make sense only to those trying to prove their psychedelic strangeness. That’s why if you’re Julie Taymor, creating a musical drama featuring only Beatles hits, you’ve got a lot of material to work with. And that’s why it’s strange that Across the Universe feels as if its backed into a creative corner.

With real-world sets and several fantastical effects sequences, the movie is visually ambitious, but it’s pedestrian at the core. It plucks hits from all over the Beatles’ anthology, and yet here the ingredients dictate the main course rather than the other way around. Across the Universe has a plot, yes, but the movie doesn’t really have a story it wants to tell. Instead it has music it wants to play and it goes in search of video to support it. As a result, Across the Universe’s music works differently than most soundtracks in that the tunes don’t provide a deeper meaning to the visuals but instead provide the entire meaning. Whereas other movies could interchange numerous songs to fit the mood of a scene, here it’s the scene that changes. The songs stay.

And so it is that Across the Universe succeeds in numerous moments but not as a cohesive whole. In theory, Taymor’s film, created with screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, is about the 1960s, but that’s too easy – only slightly more refined than saying the movie is about life. The plot is none too original and in fact very Hair-y. And beyond that, one could say that the Beatles’ music was already about the 60s, leaving nothing to be gained from a cinematic adaptation. Still, Taymor tries, spinning a story about an English chap named Jude (Jim Sturgess) who falls for a good American girl named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) amid times of trouble. There are other characters, too, with names equally inspired by Beatles lyrics (Prudence, JoJo, Mr. Kite), but they matter not. They exist solely to help Taymor incorporate some Beatles hits that would otherwise fit awkwardly in her love tale. (Because could any of us have taken this love story seriously if it included Jude coming on to Lucy by saying that he was the Walrus, goo goo g’joob? Nuff said.)

But in a movie already off-kilter with either too much dialogue between songs or not enough (I’m honestly not sure which), these fringe characters disrupt any semblance of momentum. Near the beginning, Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a teenage lesbian, provides a fresh rendition of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” that suggests Across the Universe will be brave and daring, but then the character, not to mention the edgy approach, is practically abandoned. A while later, Prudence resurfaces long enough to lock herself in a closet so that her friends can plead with her to come out to play, to greet the brand new day, and, well, you know the rest. But so what? The character is a nothing. She might as well exist as a dream sequence.

Even more problematic are Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), a pair of bandmates turned lovers turned angry ex-lovers. At one point, JoJo provides a soulful playing of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but that’s the only scene for either member of the duo that works. Plainly put, there’s no lazier way to work songs into a musical than to assign them to a band. So when Sadie launches into “Oh! Darling” or “Helter Skelter,” time drags as we’re left with no choice but to remember how much better the Beatles performed those tunes while also imagining the countless artists other than Fuchs that we’d rather hear covering the material.

Which brings us, actually, to Bono, who doesn’t sing “Helter Skelter” (even though his band, U2, recorded it) and to Joe Cocker, who doesn’t sing “A Little Help From My Friends” (even though too many kids brought up on The Wonder Years probably think it was his song in the first place). Both make cameos as, respectively, Dr. Robert and, according to IMDb, “Bum, Pimp, Hippie.” Bono even gets to act a bit, in addition to singing “I Am the Walrus,” and is darn good (I think). Cocker, though, merely changes costumes for his singing of “Come Together,” and it’s questionable which is more frightening: how at home Cocker appears as a bum, or how off-putting it his to hear Cocker’s voice coming from a dark-skinned pimp (Cocker in makeup). But these are just diversions, pleasant and not.

I’d be remiss to finish this review without mentioning Sturgess and Wood, as both leads turn in talented performances that give the movie its best moments. Sturgess has a silly mop-like hairstyle that appears to be wearing him, but his voice is pleasant and pure, and he aces “Girl,” “All My Loving” and “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Wood, on the other hand, gets off to a rocky start lip-synching to a voice that doesn’t seem to match in the awkwardly edited “Hold Me Tight,” but later she erases any doubts about the quality of her pipes with a poignant “If I Fell.” (Just to be clear, that is Wood singing throughout; and a reported 90 percent of the film’s songs were recorded live during filming, only to be dubbed later anyway, I presume.)

Across the Universe is a movie I wanted to love, but I couldn’t make the leap. In ways, it’s a rudimentary Moulin Rouge. Yet while the Beatles’ offerings here are varied enough that borrowing exclusively from the one band never grows tedious, the literal interpretation leaves much to be desired. Rather than highlighting the boundless magic of its music, Across the Universe makes Beatles tunes seem paint-by-number. Moulin Rouge uses some of the same songs to greater effect because it’s a movie about people so in love that they can’t help but sing. Across the Universe proves yet again that the Beatles identified with that feeling, yet Taymor seems to be learning. This is a musical spun of the head that needed to come from the heart.


Adam Zanzie said...

It's a cliche to say so, but speaking as a Beatles fan I took some offense to Across the Universe, which I read as The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Music of the 1960's. The movie treated the counterculture and the Vietnam War as if today's generation had never heard of either- what was the tagline? Something like, "...and then Vietnam came, and everything changed". O rly?

Taymor did a decent job with a couple of the songs, such as "With A Little Help from My Friends" and Bono's "I Am the Walrus". Everything else was irritating. I intensley disliked, for example, the idea of having "I Want You" sung by a stereotypical cartoon-faced Lyndon Johnson. That was stupid. Or having an Asian lesbian singing "I Want to Hold Your Hand"; sure, it's an original idea, but it makes you never want to listen to the song ever again! What is Taymor trying to do to us?

And furthermore, the characters- Jude, Lucy, etc- are all cardboard. But Taymor isn't going for a dehumanized Kubrickian approach or anything- she honestly wants us to care about these characters, which is downright impossible. I agree with you that the film feels strangely unimaginative.

FilmDr said...

Excellent review. I found I could only take about 20 minutes of Across the Universe before I turned it off, and I suppose I couldn't stand it due in part due to my great respect for the Beatles. I've heard of a curse that tends to surround Beatles-related rehash movies such as the Bee Gees' Sergeant Pepper films, but it makes sense. The Beatles usually did a superb job with the production, writing, and so on of their music. Why watch something that waters that down, and reduces each song to a witty gesture or a half-hearted plot point?

Jason Bellamy said...

Adam: "Cardboard" is a good word for the characters. And, indeed, I have no idea what Taymor was trying to achieve. The movie is a strange blend of overly literal interpretation and strange (empty) psychedelic interpretation.

FilmDr: I'm not surprised you only lasted 20 minutes. Seeing it in the theater, this is one of those that you keep watching not because it maintains your interest but because you're there -- you paid for the ticket and you're going to watch the whole show. Still, in the film's few moments -- and it does have moments -- I was thankful I was watching. But none of that erases this: "Why watch something that waters that down, and reduces each song to a witty gesture or a half-hearted plot point?" Well said.

Thanks for the comments, fellas.

Hokahey said...

This was a fun movie to watch - mostly; it got tedious at times - so I agree with your assessments. Some songs worked; some bombed. Some needed to be cut out like For the Benefit of Mr. Kite; besides disliking the song, the montage was nutty.

For me part of the enjoyment was the audience - and here, now, I've thought of a comment for your previous post on special audience experiences. First, the lights went down, the opening frame came up, and a whole row of teenage girls down in the front yelled, "We love this movie!" Then, of coure, when it came to "Hey, Jude," well, you can guess the rest, I may have joined in in the refrain as well - or at least wanted to go down and join them.

Cal said...

Yeah, I'm in agreement.

It's the perfect example of a poorly thought-out musical. Kind of like Mamma Mia! it just wants to deliver the songs at expense of any cohesive plot.

Daniel Getahun said...

Argh, do I have to be the one to admit to loving this movie? You're dead on about a lack of story, but for me this movie has never been about some cliched romance. I've always seen it, and loved it, just for what it is - a cinematic illustration of the Beatles' songs that only loosely ties together the character's stories.

I guess Taymor's vision just totally floored me, or at least entertained me enough not to care about what was happening to whom. The same can NOT be said about Mamma Mia!, which didn't have an ounce of the creativity on display here.

Oh yeah, and I do think the ending was pretty romantic...(blush)...

Bianca said...

ok i just have to ask, wth no offence to anyone, how could u have turned ff the movie? it was a great movie. The music was amazing. I loved every minute of it.

sensit said...

You may interesting another review on Across the Universe movie at

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