Directed by Julie Taymor. Screenplay by Dick Clement & Ian Le Frenais; story by Julie Taymor & Dick Clement & Ian Le Frenais. Produced by Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd, Charles Newirth, Matthew Gross. Photographed by Bruno Delbonnel. Edited by Françoise Bonnot. Music by Elliot Goldenthal and The Beatles. Production designed by Mark Friedberg. Starring Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, T.V. Carpio.
In contemporary pop culture, there are few artists more alternately interesting and baffling as Julie Taymor. Taymor, the director of the Broadway version of The Lion King (and several other ambitious theatrical works), just this week stepped away from the $65-million-and-climbing boondoggle of a stage extravaganza called Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (which is titled that for reasons that still remain a mystery). Despite the cloud under which she has left this troubled production, her reputation as a visually arresting artist remains secure. With consistent poise and grace to match her ambition, her film work equally bears that reputation out: see 2000’s Titus, which reformulated Shakespeare’s very first play into a bloody, showy dark comedy. Or 2002’s Frida, which told the story of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, bursting with the sense of vision that such a story would demand. And just last year she turned to Shakespeare again, with a version of The Tempest that I have not seen yet (some reviews saw it as tonally inconsistent with the source material, but I find that hard to believe). She is known as a perfectionist, and I think that comes through in her work. Some may find her pretentious (and she sometimes is), and others may rankle at her inability to compromise. But Taymor is a precious vintage that I’d hate to see watered down, and if there is no place for her in art, we might as well quit right now.
In 2007, she made perhaps her oddest film. Preceded by reports of editing problems provoked by the uncompromising Taymor, Across the Universe is a go-for-broke handling of a high-concept idea: a musical built around established songs, but this time using the records of The Beatles as a source. Through it, she tells a conventional story about love in the 60’s, as the Eisenhower-era drifts into the legacy of Johnson, the U.S. goes to war, the tune-in and drop-out counterculture takes hold, drugs, etc. There was an NBC miniseries once called The 60’s that tried to do much the same thing, boiling down an entire decade into short form, telling its story by pawning its characters into strategic positions to watch an era unfold. There’s something dangerous and yet highly exciting about taking such a schematic view to history, and I understand the appeal in both cases. And yes, Across the Universe is clearly the better of the two.
That’s probably probably because it is better designed; Across the Universe never falls into the trap of coming up with too many characters, although nevertheless it does overreach. The key players are Jude (Jim Sturgess), an English shipyard worker who goes to America to meet his father for the first time, and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a hoop-skirted teen who becomes Jude’s bedmate and ideological conscience during the upheaval of the 1960’s. Jude and Lucy? Precious much? We’re just getting started, folks. There’s also Max (Joe Anderson), Lucy’s brother who gets drafted into Vietnam, and also Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), who are basically two very cool Greenwich Village musicians. And then there is Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a lesbian who is doomed to an existence of unrequited love. It sounds like too much, but it doesn’t play that way; the film wisely dials down the subplots and (mostly) keeps things in focus.
But to what end? The high concept here is that, obeying the sacred rules of musical theatre, characters mark their major life passages through song, and here, they’re all Beatles numbers. But the characters aren’t supposed to be quoting anything, it’s like, again per musical tradition, they came up with those lyrics and that melody, on the spot, as if the songs were right there, hanging in the air, ready to be picked. Does this trivialize The Beatles by showing their hard work effortlessly invented by others? I don’t think so, but it’s an interesting question. In this alternate universe where the Beatles’ hits never existed but everyone sings them anyway, it does lead to an interesting paradox: an early scene takes place in The Cave nightclub in London, where a Beatles clone-band takes the stage as the crowd sings “All My Loving.” So…what songs did the band play, and where is their career going? Are their names John, Paul, George and Ringo? What’s Pete Best doing right now? I’m sure experts in quantum physics possess answers to these questions; the rest of us, never mind.
The film is canny in how it repurposes previous hits, until it becomes strained, and then a bit annoying. Sure, I can honestly believe that on prom night two teenagers could sing “Hold Me Tight,” as if the song was written for them and by them, for the first time. Easy. But… “I Am the Walrus”? “Strawberry Fields Forever”? Or “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” Really? Truly? You can hear the songs circling for a landing long before they do, sometimes because they are signposted, and other times because it’s impossible not to signpost them. The film does its darndest to contextualize everything, but the shamelessness of its reverse-engineering is made clear when poor Prudence locks herself in a bathroom so that everyone can sing “Dear Prudence/Won’t you come out to play?” Oh, please. And thank goodness Eddie Izzard is on hand to play a circus ringleader conveniently named Mr. Kite, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to shoehorn “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” into the narrative. Wouldn’t that be a crime.
I’ll confess I have this problem with almost all so-called “jukebox musicals,” with the sole exception of Baz Luhrman’s wonderful Moulin Rouge!, and I think the secret to that movie’s success was that the song selections were cherry-picked from multiple decades; the story dictated the musical numbers. Here, straightjacketed to a single group’s canon (even if it is a group that is to pop music what Shakespeare was to theatre), the songs dictate the story, and you can hear the gears grinding as the plot contorts itself into ungainly shapes. The approach only works well when the songs are slapped with an unfamiliar subtext, so when “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is repackaged as a love song from a closet lesbian, at least we’re not thinking I saw that coming. And I’m not sure what possessed Taymor and her co-scenarists, Dick Clement and Ian LeFrenais, to rejigger “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” from a sexually-charged anthem into a musing on misplaced patriotism, but I like where their heads are at.
For much of the film’s runtime, however, the songs are not subverted but played pretty straight, as the resequenced soundtrack to a lost generation. At this point, you’re thinking: Didn’t the Beatles already do that? They never wrote their songs to be deliberately part of a narrative, true. But I think there is certainly a story told in the Beatles’ maturation: the feckless innocence of A Hard Day’s Night giving way to the playfulness of Help!, to the righteous anger of Revolver to the druggy haze of Yellow Submarine, and so on. There’s an artistic sensibility there, as the Fab Four reacted to their turbulent times, that seems disrespected in Across the Universe, not because the songs have been shuffled, but because it is done in service of a limited statement that pales in comparison to that of the Actual. Freakin’. Beatles. Taymor, despite all her bluster, is simply repackaging old material in a pretty box. She’s not making a statement, so it’s unfortunate that she feels the need to essentially rewrite the work of people who did. I know it’s not her intent, but it’s possibly to find that culturally tone-deaf.
So that’s if you dig deeper in Across the Universe, and also if you try to find something meaningful in the character arcs, because the players are in actuality well-disguised pawns that the film uses to cycle though its love stories and selections from The Beatles catalog. The film is a celebration of pure, tasteless excess, and all the dream sequences and LSD trips are simply an excuse for Taymor to let her own cinematographers and designers go hog-wild.
That said, is it still worth watching? Absolutely. Whatever damage Taymor does to the Beatles, she does give us a hypnotizing odyssey, one that is just plain beautifully photographed. Through her vibrant use of color and artful staging, the songs and characters come alive, and Taymor must be commended for crafting such an incredible visual strategy for the film, dipping its toes in animation, exaggeration, and sometimes even downright surrealism. Yes, Taymor sacrifices everything at the altar of her pretty images, but if those are her terms, well, I accept; they are very pretty images. There comes a point, perhaps, when it all becomes exhausting (due to the lack of a clear emotional anchor), and one reflects that Across the Universe is the kind of movie that perhaps works best in 30-minute chunks rather than in totality, but during those 30-minute chunks, it’s a blast.
The performances are pretty terrific—unsurprising, since Taymor is accomplished in the musical arena and knows how to get the best from even untrained voices. The biggest surprise is perhaps Evan Rachel Wood, who belts out her numbers with aplomb, while Sturgess tunes himself down to a low-key warble. The entire cast is quite capable, even if Taymor arguably betrays them by leaving them so adrift when she slathers on the overindulgences. I could imagine a version of this material with more heart and nuance that doesn’t succumb to a kitchen sink mentality, with fewer songs and more discipline. but that’s not what Taymor is interested in, and that’s that.
And altogether, if Across the Universe is an act of supreme folly…an explosion of garish gimcrackery, freed from the corrective measures of restraint…I ask you, so what? At least it goes out swinging for the fences. Can’t art simply exist for its own sake? Does it have to “say” something? Why can’t a movie every once in a while be like a great painting or sculpture, and have the gamut of its possible interpretations extend all the way to nothing? Although I am careful to take survey of Across the Universe’s flaws, I cannot hate it. In a way, I love its energy, its sense of movement and flow, its experimentation and love for an era, and even the way it embraces its own intemperance. It’s not deep or meaningful. But it is a lot of fun, and at times really quite lovely. I think Taymor works best when she has a rigid structure to tie to her flights of fancy, which is probably why Shakespeare (be it Disneyfied or straight up) is the best container for her, but even here her storytelling pose is a confident swagger, and even this material completely belies such an approach…hey, I like her attitude.
The most crucial test a motion picture can pass is so deceptively simple. If a film is not boring, it can get away with anything, because all other concerns can take a back seat to our collective gratitude at seeing something that dares. Across the Universe did not bore me. It sometimes made me angry, sometimes exhilarated, other times confused, and even still other dies utterly baffled, but I was never bored. Compare that to something like, oh…M. Night Shymalan’s The Last Airbender (I’ve seen it recently, so it’s fresh in mind), which is a boring film–badly acted, artlessly lensed, poorly scripted, lacking a single noteworthy moment despite taking place in a fantastical landscape. Movies like that only make more grateful for movies like Across the Universe, because maybe it did say nothing, but it said it damn well. It made me unreasonably happy, and so to any naysayer, I would say…I understand. But let it be.
NOTES: The trailer (seen here) for the film, though it didn’t quite get me to see the movie until years after the fact, remains one of the great film trailers of the 2000’s, but that’s probably because I think the crescendo, to the tune of (what else?) “Hey, Jude,” is pretty nifty.
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