Saturday Night At The Movies
Like endless rain into a paper cup (with dancing!)
By Dennis Hartley
When I first heard that there was a new movie musical based on interpretations of classic Beatle songs, that nervous tic in my left eye started up again. I don’t think I have ever quite fully recovered from the trauma of watching “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band”, the final straw that broke the back of entertainment mogul Robert Stigwood’s empire back in 1978. Sometimes, during those long dark nights of my soul, the apparition of George Burns still appears unbidden before me; singing “Fixing a Hole” (shudder!). (And let’s pretend that “All This and World War II” never even happened, mmmkay?)
However, when I found out that the gifted film and stage director Julie Taymor (“Titus”) was at the helm, I decided to, er, give her new piece a chance; and to my pleasant surprise I was treated to the most imaginative, eye-popping screen musical since Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” breathed new life into the genre back in 2001.
“Across the Universe” is fundamentally a collection of visually stunning, slickly choreographed production numbers, all propelled by Beatles covers and loosely connected by the requisite “boy meets girl” motif. Toss in a sprinkling of iconic 60s counterculture references (Vietnam, Leary, Kesey, Owsley, the Weathermen, Hendrix, Joplin, etc.). and voila! Admittedly, the plot is a bit thin; this will likely be a sticking point for those looking for a deeper meditation on the peace love and dope generation.
The story’s central character is Jude (Jim Sturgess), a young working class Liverpudlian who stows away illegally to the States in search of his father, an American GI who had a brief wartime fling with his mother. He ends up at Princeton University, where he finds out his father now works as a janitor. Jude soon falls in with Max (Joe Anderson), a free-spirited Ivy League slacker, through whom he meets the love of his life, Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Eventually, the trio decides to “drop out” and move to Manhattan, where they find an apartment managed by the (sexy!) Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a hippie earth mother archetype who also is an up and coming rock singer (replete with a bluesy Janis Joplin wail). The three roommates are soon sucked into the vortex of 60’s turbulence. Max is drafted and shipped to Vietnam; Lucy throws herself into political activism and the mercurial Jude, still trying to find himself, flirts with becoming an artist.
There are other “main” characters, but they are somewhat underwritten and largely there for color. For example, one character named Prudence (I assume you’ve caught on to the name game by now?) appears to exist solely to make her grand entrance in the film’s lamest visual pun-she comes in through the bathroom window (yeah, it’s a real groaner!).
There are some memorable cameos. Joe Cocker belts out a great version of “Come Together”, U-2’s Bono dispenses hallucinogens and hams it up as the day tripping Dr. Robert, crooning “I Am The Walrus” and Eddie Izzard (bearing an eerie resemblance to the late Oliver Reed as he appeared in “Tommy”) cavorts with a chorus line comprised of Pixar-worthy Blue Meanies, to the strains of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”.
Inevitably, a few of the more exuberant numbers recall Milos Forman’s 1979 film version of “Hair”. In fact, one could say that some elements of the storyline in “Across the Universe” recall “Hair” as well; but I think Taymor is sharp enough to navigate that fine line between “inspiration” and “plagiarism” (or as film makers are fond of calling it: “paying homage”). I also gleaned references to “The Graduate” and “Alice's Restaurant”.
If the film has a weakness, it lies in the casting of the two leads. The character of Jude, as written, holds many obvious parallels to the life of John Lennon; the Liverpool roots, the estranged father, the creative angst and inherent cynicism. Jude’s NYC apartment and his eventual deportation is undoubtedly a reference to Lennon’s later visa issues (Check out my review of “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” here). Sturgess doesn’t quite have the depth that a more seasoned actor might have put into those particular elements of the Jude character. Wood sleepwalks through the film as well; it’s a disappointing follow-up to her acclaimed performance in “Thirteen”.
At the end of the day, however, we must keep in mind that this is, after all, a musical. Audiences seem to be much more forgiving about rote line readings when there’s lots of good singin’ and dancin’. Even a genuine genre classic like “West Side Story ” had weaknesses on that front; Richard Beymer was no Brando, and Natalie Wood could have used a better dialect coach. But what do people remember most about that film? The kickass choreography and the incredible music score. And do you want to know what the best part is about “Across the Universe” is? The Bee Gees are nowhere to be seen.
The Reel Deal: “A Hard Day's Night”, “Help!”, “Magical Mystery Tour”, “Yellow Submarine”, “Let It Be ”, “The Beatles Anthology”, “The Compleat Beatles”, “Imagine”, “The Concert for Bangladesh”, “The Magic Christian”, “Candy”, “200 Motels”, "That'll Be The Day", “How I Won the War”, “Give My Regards To Broad Street”,“Wonderwall” (George Harrison score), “The Family Way” (Paul McCartney score).
Fab Faux: “Beatlemania - The Movie”, “Birth Of The Beatles” (made for TV),“Backbeat ”, “The Hours and Times” (sleeper-highly recommended!), “That Thing You Do!”, “The Rutles - All You Need Is Cash”, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, “Stardust” (1974)