Ever since I saw "Across the Universe" last week, I've struggled with a way to describe the experience.
I can equate it to the experience I had when first watching "Moulin Rouge!" -- I thought, "Oh no, this could take a quick dive into ridiculous!" But after I pushed myself (and I really had to push myself) to watch "Moulin Rouge!" I fell in love, and the same happened with "Across the Universe," though no force was required. This New York Times article sums things up quite well:
Lovers in the ’60s Take a Magical Mystery Tour
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: September 14, 2007
From its first moments, when a solitary dreamer on a beach turns to the camera and sings, unaccompanied, the opening lines of the Beatles’ song “Girl,” Julie Taymor’s ’60s musical fantasia, “Across the Universe,” reveals its intention to use the Beatles’ catalog to tell two stories at once, one personal, the other generational. That young man, Jude (Jim Sturgess), is a cheeky Liverpool dockworker with a twinkle in his eye. He quickly emerges as a winsome vocal composite of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, with a personality to match.
From here the movie only gets better. Somewhere around its midpoint, “Across the Universe” captured my heart, and I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person. Imperfections, however glaring, become endearing quirks once you’ve tumbled.
That surrender is the kind of commitment that Ms. Taymor, a true believer in the magic of art, asks of an audience. And as the movie intensifies, and she brings in a fantastic array of puppets, masks and synergistic effects, you may find yourself in a heightened emotional state, even as you realize that what you’re seeing is unadulterated white, middle-class baby boomer nostalgia.
This risky hybrid of long-form music video and movie musical with clearly drawn characters tells the story of Jude’s star-crossed love affair with Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a girl from upper-crust East Coast suburbia. It follows the couple as they are swept up and come apart in the evolving counterculture of left-wing politics, sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
The story, briefly: Jude, visiting the United States in search of his long-lost father, meets Lucy through her brother, Max (Joe Anderson), a student at Princeton, where the father is discovered working as a janitor. Max takes Jude home to his stuffy family for Thanksgiving, during which Max shocks his parents by announcing that he is dropping out of college. He and Jude drive to New York and settle in a sprawling East Village tenement and are soon joined by Lucy.
Their landlady, Sadie (Dana Fuchs, who played Janis Joplin in the Off Broadway show “Love, Janis”), is the movie’s resident earth mother. An aspiring rock singer, she sounds like a warmer, more controlled Joplin. Her triumphal “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” announces Lucy’s arrival in New York, and later in the movie, her voice hoarsely shouting “Helter Skelter” rises above the mob during a Columbia University riot at which Jude is arrested.
Rounding out the bohemian household are Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitarist who arrives from Detroit by Greyhound after his younger brother’s death in the Detroit riots, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), an Asian-American lesbian cheerleader who hitchhikes to New York from Dayton, Ohio, and (in a joke on a Beatles song title) crashes into the house through the bathroom window.
Jo-Jo, who suggests a softened Jimi Hendrix, becomes Sadie’s on-again-off-again boyfriend and sometime lead guitarist. Prudence, who early in the film sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand” while gazing wistfully from afar at a blond cheerleader, develops a secret crush on Sadie. While Jude embraces art, Lucy, who lost her first boyfriend in Vietnam, gravitates toward antiwar activism after Max receives his draft notice and reluctantly leaves to fight in the war.
If the young lovers are familiar ’60s archetypes, the actors’ natural performances and the easy, colloquial dialogue by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (“The Commitments”) allow the characters to transcend the generic. When Lucy, gazing at Jude, sings “If I Fell” very slowly, in a sweet, trembling voice, she is one girl worriedly fantasizing about one boy.
Most of the historical events are lightly fictionalized in a movie that maintains only the fuzziest of timelines. Its 33 Beatles songs (two without words) have been re-recorded and sung by the actors. Yet “Across the Universe” feels emotionally true both to the Beatles, whose music today seems to exist outside of time, and to the decade it remembers. Smart, uncluttered musical arrangements help reposition the songs to address the situation at hand. As a result, music that has congealed in collective memory — especially the clever, breezy early Beatles songs — emerges refreshed.
A visceral peak arrives with “Strawberry Fields Forever.” In this gorgeous production number, an artwork by Jude in which rows of bleeding strawberries are pinned to a white surface transmutes into a hallucination of strawberry bombs raining over Southeast Asia. Then the artist, in an anguished frenzy, begins smashing strawberries on the walls and floors and destroys his work.
This happens around the time that Lucy, who works for a militant antiwar organization, angrily dismisses Jude’s art as “doodles and cartoons.” He charges into her office, snarls the song “Revolution” and instigates a brawl. It is one of several moments in which “Across the Universe” grasps a central emotional duality of a culture in which rage and ecstatic idealism clashed and played into each other at the same time.
Another extraordinary scene follows Joe to a United States Army induction center at which an Uncle Sam poster comes to animated life, leans down, points a giant finger and growls, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” Inside the center a choreographed sequence finds inductees in their underwear sliding involuntarily along the floor through lines of Army officers in grim Expressionistic masks, marching in robotic formation. The new recruits are next shown, still in their underwear, lugging a giant replica of the Statue of Liberty through the Vietnamese jungle.
The dreamiest reverie, set to “Because,” begins with a tableau of nine friends blissfully lying on their backs in the grass in a mandala pattern. The circle disperses as Jude and Lucy find themselves in a watery blue sky where clouds melt into liquid, and the entwined lovers are themselves floating underwater. Most fanciful of all is a largely animated sequence in which Eddie Izzard is Mr. Kite, the ringmaster of a psychedelic circus with a dancing chorus line of “the blue people.”
Amid the phantasmagoria are several star cameos. As Max recovers from war injuries in a veterans’ hospital, he has a morphine-induced fever dream in which the beds in his ward rear up from the floor to the song “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” and he is tended by five Salma Hayeks. Bono appears as the acid guru, Dr. Robert, a Ken Kesey-Neal Cassady fusion who sings “I Am the Walrus” at an acid-drenched party and conducts Jude, Lucy and a roiling band of Merry Pranksters on a delirious bus journey through a rainbow-colored countryside.
“Across the Universe,” in the spirit of the counterculture, goes with the flow. Its scenes, songs and witty roughhouse choreography, spun off from the Beatles’ movies “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!,” dissolve into a stream of consciousness with only occasional punctuation.
Because of its oh-wow aesthetic, its refusal to adopt a critical distance from the ’60s drug culture, its tacit approval of the characters’ antiwar activism and its token attention to the decade’s racial strife, “Across the Universe” leaves itself wide open to derision, complaints and endless nitpicking. But it couldn’t have succeeded any other way. The movie is completely devoid of the protective cynicism that is now a reflexive response to the term “the ’60s.”
“Across the Universe” believes wholeheartedly in the quaint, communitarian spirit it exalts. You share the joy of its blissed-out hippies in the grass. You feel the deepening friendship between Jude and Max that is sealed in Max’s incandescent performance of “Hey, Jude.” And during the time it lasts, the intoxicating passion of Jude and Lucy, both innocents by today’s standards, convinces, for a moment, that love is all you need.
“Across the Universe” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It has nudity, sexual situations, drug use, mild violence and some strong language.
British actor Jim Sturgess (Jude) is adorable, and I'm not sure if he's from Liverpool or not, but if he isn't, I still loved the accent. ;o) Joe Anderson (Max -- as in "Maxwell's Silver Hammer... LOL) is a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain. I found it a tad distracting even.
Don't take my word on this movie, take Roger Ebert's:
Here is a bold, beautiful, visually enchanting musical where we walk into the theater humming the songs. Julie Taymor's "Across the Universe" is an audacious marriage of cutting-edge visual techniques, heart-warming performances, 1960s history and the Beatles songbook. Sounds like a concept that might be behind its time, but I believe in yesterday.
This isn't one of those druggy 1960s movies, although it has what the MPAA shyly calls "some" drug content. It's not grungy, although it has Joe Cocker in it. It's not political, which means it's political to its core. Most miraculous of all, it's not dated; the stories could be happening now, and in fact, they are.
For a film that is almost wall to wall with music, it has a full-bodied plot. The characters, mostly named after Beatles songs, include Lucy (the angelic Evan Rachel Wood), who moves from middle America to New York; Jude (Jim Sturgess), a Liverpool ship welder who works his way to New York on a ship, and Lucy's brother, Max (Joe Anderson), a college student who has dropped out (I guess). They now all share a pad in Greenwich Village with their musician friends, the Hendrixian Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), the Joplinesque Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and the lovelorn Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who loves women but doesn’t feel free to express her true feelings.
Jude and Lucy fall in love, and they all go through a hippie period on Dr. Robert's Magic Bus, where the doctor (Bono) and his bus bear a striking resemblance to Ken Kesey's magical mystery tour. They also get guidance from Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard), having been some days in preparation. But then things turn serious as Max goes off to Vietnam and the story gets swept up in the anti-war movement.
Yet when I say "story," don't start thinking about a lot of dialogue and plotting. Almost everything happens as an illustration to a Beatles song. The arrangements are sometimes familiar, sometimes radically altered, and the voices are all new; the actors either sing or sync, and often they find a mood in a song that we never knew was there before. When Prudence sings "I Want to Hold Your Hand," for example, I realized how wrong I was to ever think that was a happy song. It's not happy if it's a hand you are never, never, never going to hold. The love that dare not express its name turns in sadness to song.
Julie Taymor, famous as the director of "The Lion King" on Broadway, is a generously inventive choreographer, such as in a basic-training scene where all the drill sergeants look like G.I. Joe; a sequence where inductees in Jockey shorts carry the Statue of Liberty through a Vietnam field, and cross-cutting between dancing to Beatles clone bands at an American high school prom and in a Liverpool dive bar. There are underwater sequences which approach ballet, a stage performance that turns into musical warfare, strawberries that bleed, rooftop concerts and a montage combining crashing waves with the Detroit riots.
But all I'm doing here is list-making. The beauty is in the execution. The experience of the movie is joyous. I don't even want to know about anybody who complains they aren't hearing "the real Beatles." Fred Astaire wasn't Cole Porter, either. These songs are now more than 40 years old, some of them, and are timeless, and hearing these unexpected talents singing them (yes, and Bono, Izzard and Cocker, too) only underlines their astonishing quality.
You weren't alive in the 1960s? Or the '70s or '80s? You're like the guy on the IMDb message board who thought the band was named the "Beetles," and didn't even get it when people made Volkswagen jokes because he hadn't heard of VW Beetles, either. All is forgiven. Jay Leno has a Jaywalking spot for you. Just about anybody else is likely to enjoy "Across the Universe."
I'm sure there were executives who thought it was suicidal to set a "Beatles musical" in the "Vietnam era." But this is a movie that fires its songs like flowers at the way we live now. It's the kind of movie you watch again, like listening to a favorite album. It was scheduled for the Toronto Film Festival but was previewed (as several Toronto films were) for critics in major cities. I was drowning in movies and deadlines, and this was the only one I went to see twice. Now do your homework and rent the DVD of "A Hard Day's Night" if you've never seen it. The thought that there are readers who would get this far in this review of this film and never have seen that film is unbearably sad. Cheer me up. Don't let me down (repeat three times).