Across the Universe (2007): Julie Taymor’s Musical of the Fab Four

Despite the films coda, the Beatles signature song, All You Need is Love, you’ll need much more than love to tolerate Julie Taymor’s atrociously stylized musical extravaganza Across the Universe, a banal collage of the Fab Four 33 tunes.

At two hours and 33 minutes, Across the Universe is overly long, self-indulgent and expensive folly, with budget rumored to be north of $50 million, of which Sony paid the noted band $10 million for the move rights of their song, sans their rendition, of course.

Due to publicized reports during pots-production of the conflict Taymor and Joe Roth, head of Revolution Studios (which made the picture) over final cut, some critics may reach the wrong conclusion that the films incoherence and many other flaws are a result of studio interference and tempering with artist. But coherence has never been a strong suit for Taymor, known for her idiosyncratic approach to film projects. Just look at her previous work: the monstrous Titus, the mediocre Frida. (See Below).

The only good thing about Across the Universe is that it adds a panel to a growing body of musical movies, a genre thats been all but dead until two years ago. Over the past year alone, we have seen Dreamgirls, Once, and Hairspray, all superior tuner to Taymors new film. I think Across the Universe will not be successful at the box-office, but perhaps it would reignite Hollywood producers in trying to revitalize the genre with other experiments.

I am not sure that Across the Universe even merits the labels of experimental or audacious, because essentially its a sharply uneven collage of songs, half of which are ineptly staged and at least five or six are poorly placed in the text, which is truly generic and conventional.

Rather disappointingly, Taymors rendition of the Beatles songs is often predictably banal. To wit: Strawberries Fields Forever is performed with an illustration of a bowl of strawberries (I am not kidding). It would have been better to accompany the song with John Lennons house in New Yorks 72nd Street, or Central Park, where theres a memorial for him. And I Want to Hold Your Hand is used as a symbol of unrequited lesbian desire.

Predictably, characters names, such as Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) or Jude (Jim Sturgess) are drawn from songs, and Jude comes from Liverpool! So much for originality and inspiration.

In Across the Universe, the songs are the thing, and listening to the Beatles classic hit parade brings a lot of pleasure and nostalgia, even if the performances leave a lot to be desired, since the songs are delivered, as has become the norm, but the actors themselves, most of whom are not professional singers.

If my calculation is right, the actors rendition of the 33 tunes occupies about 2 hours of the films running time. Which means we are left with half an hour of narrative, which short as it is, constitutes the works main problem, not only because its lifted out of Hair and other counter-cultural works of the late 1960s and 1970s, but because its so generic that its embarrassing to behold.

Credited to Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, though I suspect Taymor also contributed to the conceptual framework, its a romantic story, set against the tumultuous events of the decade, the Vietnam War, the anti-war movements, the psychedelic-flower children, the bohemian hippie communes, the political assassination of Martin Luther Kind Jr., and so on.

Constructing a musical fantasy about romantic, idealistic youth, seeking utopian existence, the yarn concerns the handsomer Jude (Brit Jim Sturgess), who leaves Liverpool in the mid-1960s and goes to the U.S. to search for his American father. While attending Princeton University, he befriends Max (John Anderson), a product of upscale upbringing (what else) who has a beautiful sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), for whom he immediately falls head over heels.

Dropping out, the trio relocates to New York with hopes for a freer, more meaningful life. They rent a space from a musician named Sadie (Dana Fuchs). Meanwhile, their bohemian clan grows with the addition of Prudence (T.V. Carpo), a youth going sexual identity crisis (is he gay/straight), Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), a sensitive guitarist, and others.

But history plays its tricks and some dark unpredictable events begin to impinge on their lives, such as racial discrimination, political unrest, the Vietnam War and the draft.

Whats left for the characters to do They erupt in an unevenly depicted chain of songs to illustrate their ideals, hopes, and dreams, as well as their frustrations and fears. Thus, we go through a catalog of wonderful songs, such as Come Together, which not surprisingly is delivered by Jo-Jo, when the commune begins to take shape.

The skeleton text, such as it is, is understandably motivated by songs, and often you feel that the picture would have been better with any dialogue at all, because the conversations are trivial and serve as links among the tunes rather than illustration dramatic encounters and clashes.

Also disappointing, considering that Taylor has work with vet song producer T-Bone Burnett, Teese Gohl, and Elliot Goldenthal (the directors reliable collaborator and real-life companion), is the number of classic songs that are misrepresented or poorly staged. Arguably, Across the Universe reaches its lowest point with Bono singing I Am the Walrus, as a Neal Cassidy-inspired Dr. Robert, which is ridiculous and unnecessary.

For the most part, Taymors choices are better if also obvious. Hence, the grand iconic song, Let It Be, is reimagined (to use Taymors own words) as gospel-like elegy for American soldiers who got killed in Vietnam and for victims of the historical Detroit riots in 1967, with the director clearly wanting to draw parallels with contemporary reality of US foreign politics.

Occasionally, Taymor goes for (pseudo) lyricism and falls flat on her face as in the kitschy-psychedelic rendition of Because, which is performed by a group of attractive youths in the nude underwater.

Having done her homework, Taymor must have studied not only Milos Formans Hair, but also Ken Russells Tommy and Pink Floyds The Wall, all artistically ambitious but commercial failures, for she repeats their mistakes.

Known for her strong visual touches, mostly for the stage (The Lion King), Taymor uses large-scale puppets and other theatrical devices, but end result is a mishmash of a musical that runs the risk of disappointing both music lovers and Fab Four fans and moviegoers.

End Note

Visual eccentricities and idiosyncratic touches re not sufficient for making good or even decent movies. Titus, Taymors feature directorial debut, distorted Shakespeares, was unwatchable and became known as the film in which two of our greatest actors, Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, gave some of their all-time performances (in large part due to the directors misguided conception).

Taymors second film, the biopicture Frida, was decent but not good, elevated considerably by Salma Hayeks committed performance as the Mexican painter-celeb.

Cast

Lucy – Evan Rachel Wood
Jude – Jim Sturgess
Max – Joe Anderson
Sadie – Dana Fuchs
Jo-Jo – Martin Luther McCoy
Prudence – T.V. Carpio

Credits

Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures, Revolution Studios presentation of a Matthew Gross/Team Todd production.
Produced by Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd, Gross. Executive producers: Derek Dauchy, Rudd Simmons, Charles Newirth.
Co-producers: Richard Barratta, Ben Haber. Directed by Julie Taymor.
Screenplay: Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais; story, Taymor, Clement, La Frenais; songs written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr.
Camera: Bruno Delbonnel.
Editor: Francoise Bonnot.
Music: Elliot Goldenthal.
Song production: T Bone Burnett, Goldenthal, Teese Gohl.
Music supervisor: Denise Luiso.
Production designer: Mark Friedberg.
Art director: Peter Rogness.
Set decorator: Ellen Christiansen de Jonge.
Costume designer: Albert Wolsky.
Sound: Tod Maitland.
Sound designer/supervising sound editor: Blake Leyh.
Special effects supervisor: Steve Kirshoff.
Visual effects supervisor: Peter Crossman. Visual effects: Frantic Films, the FX Cartel, Eden FX, HimAnI Prods., Ockhams Razor.
Animation: Kyle Cooper.
Choreographer: Daniel Ezralow.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 133 Minutes.

Share this:
Share this page via Email Share this page via Stumble Upon Share this page via Digg this Share this page via Facebook Share this page via Twitter