Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs
Director: Julie Taymor
Release Date: October 12, 2007
Running time: 131 min
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Distributors: Columbia Pictures
“Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you, tomorrow I’ll miss you. And remember I’ll always be true.”
- Paul McCartney, All My Lovin’
“The greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
- Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge!
A musical telling a love story set in and spanning the 1960’s as told against the backdrop of the music of The Beatles.
Very rarely does a movie come along that I have as much need to see as I did when I first heard of Across the Universe. Beyond simply wanting to see, I had to see this movie. The Beatles are without question my favorite band of all time and musicals are an obscenely underused genre in movies, so this movie was set up to be the perfect marriage of the two.
Across the Universe tells the story of Jude (Jim Sturgess) and his travels from his home in Liverpool, England to the good old U.S. of A. He is initially looking for his father whom he has never met and who does not know he exists. While he is there, he encounters a rash of people, whose names are derived from either titles or lyrics of Beatles songs. There’s Max (Joe Anderson), the rebellious kid from a family of privilege who moves to New York with Jude, and his sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), with whom Jude falls in love. In New York they guys meet, and end up rooming with Sadie (Dana Fuchs) an aspiring musician, Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy), Sadie’s guitar player and love interest, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who may or may not be interested in Sadie. Or Max. Or both, or neither. Lucy moves to New York after the death of her boyfriend in Vietnam and winds up falling in love with Jude. Max gets shipped to Vietman, shifting Lucy’s focus from all Jude all the time, to a radical anti-war movement. Sadie and Jojo go through the turmoils of being struggling musicians in love. And the whole thing just lumbers along from there.
The performances in the movie were decent. Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood in particular rose above the rest of cast. Dana Fuchs musical performances made for some of the better song renditions in the movie. It would, however, be difficult to argue that the best musical performance in the movie is T.V. Carpio’s I Want to Hold Your Hand. Never before has a song shifted its meaning as much by simply changing the tempo and setting in which it was sang quite like this was.
In concept, this movie is absolutely amazing. The idea of using the music of one of the most revered bands ever to tell a story set in the backdrop of the time in which the music was created is just this side of genius. Hearing these arrangements I have loved the better part of my life reimagined and reinterperted was mostly pretty amazing. I especially liked how you could see the grain of the film shift through each of the phases of The Beatles musical catelog. Some of the songs were a bit overdone, but it’s hard to ignore the essence of the music either way. At best, the versitility of The Beatles shines through in vivid detail. But there were times when it felt like the songs were forced into the movie for the sake of another musical number rather than to tell the story. And that is precisely when my worst fear realized itself. The movie started to suck.
This could have been - wait, let me start over - this SHOULD have been an achievement of the grandest scale. I just can’t tell who wanted it more, me or the movie itself. I will say this for Across the Universe; the ambition was there, but somewhere along the way it took its eye off the ball and couldn’t remember what it wanted to be. It wanted to be a love story set to Beatles music. Then it wanted to be a Beatles musical told through a love story. But it couldn’t ever figure out how to be both. About the time Taymor opted out of telling the story and into selling us with visuals, I lost my enthusiasm. Don’t misinturperet this; the visual aspect wasn’t lost on me at all - it was brilliant in spots - it just happened to coincide with the time when the storytelling stopped. When something worked, it worked wonderfully until it was overwraught and used as a weapon to bludgeon us with. When it didn’t, it just kind of fell flat.
Shortly after I got home from seeing Across the Universe, I got a call from a friend who had seen, and loved the movie. She wanted to know what I thought of it. I said the first thing that came to mind: “It was alright but I liked it better the first time I saw it, when it was called Moulin Rouge!” In hindsight, it as kind of a cheap shot since the two movies hadn’t much to do with each other. But there is a little stock in my first reaction. After that conversation I asked my girlfriend what she thought of it. Her unsolicited response? “I bet Baz Luhrmann is really pissed off somewhere right now.”
Across the Universe wants to be a lot more than it is. While grandiose in its ambition, once you strip away the novelty of having The Beatles music as a backdrop for the story, you are left with little more than a mediocre, clichéd love story that barely works. It wants to be trendy and genius and trippy, and while Julie Taymor’s visual flair is unarguably evident, the movie kind of lost it’s way once it abandoned the story it was trying to tell. I didn’t hate it, parts of it were outstanding. But the parts that weren’t seemed forced and based on my expectation and all that could have, make that SHOULD have been; this was nothing short of a missed opportunity.
And there’s the rub.
** ½ out of ****