Beatles Songs Don’t Let Me Down; Overwrought Plot Does
#35: Across the Universe (2007)
Director: Julie Taymor
It was such an ambitious project, this movie. Across the Universe is a musical that spans much of the 60s using, not only as its soundtrack but as its narrative engine, 34 Beatles songs. 34! I’ll be direct and say that I think the movie ultimately fails, but it’s not because of the songs. Across the Universe only drives home how wide and deep and rich the Beatles’ catalog really is. The visuals are also not the problem: director Julie Taymor created some remarkably striking scenes in Across the Universe, including a dreamy and balletic underwater sequence. There is much in this movie that is beautiful to look at. The problem isn’t even the actors. Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess are the romantic leads, Lucy and Jude (most of the characters names are drawn from Beatles songs). Lucy is an angel faced young American girl; Jude is a shaggy English shipyard worker who came to the States looking for his G.I. father, and then stayed illegally. They are surrounded by a growing crowd of archetypal friends: Lucy’s rebellious brother, Max (Joe Anderson), Jimi Hendrix-like Jo-Jo (Martin Luther), Janis Joplinesque Sadie (Dana Fuchs), and wistful Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who spends much of the movie pining quietly for other women. There are also cameos from Bono, Eddie Izzard and Joe Cocker, all entertaining (if bizarre).
What begins as a sweet love story turns into an outsized and implausible historical survey in which Jude and Lucy start to echo Forrest Gump. And by the way, I’m not a fan of Forrest Gump.
The problem with Across the Universe is in the story itself. It’s as if it was written by a college student who had just watched a miniseries on the 60s and tried to fit every major event or movement in the decade into this musical. What begins as a sweet love story turns into an outsized and implausible historical survey in which Jude and Lucy start to echo Forrest Gump. And by the way, I’m not a fan of Forrest Gump. Taymor would have fared better staying focused on the humans at the heart of her story, rather than tackling every social movement and iconic figure from an era that has already received over earnest treatments in dozens (hundreds?) of other films.
The songs, on the other hand, are great. Familiar songs are reimagined – Prudence’s plaintive delivery of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is a revelation. Who knew that song could be so sad? Other, less familiar songs are here, too, like “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (sung by Eddie Izzard) and “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. Song and story are tied together and while this generally works, occasionally it’s a bit too on the nose, as when Jude sings “Revolution” to the militant members of an antiwar group. A song that has never seemed preachy to me before suddenly seemed preachy.
Bonus points to Taymor for such a bold effort, but the longer the movie ran the less I was able to immerse myself in the story, and (in consequence) the less I cared about the characters. By the predictable and overlong final act – ending in a rooftop performance of “All You Need Is Love” – I felt nothing so much as disappointment that the movie hadn’t lived up to the promise of its early scenes. Still. The Beatles had some great songs, didn’t they?