Hey, you! You dig the Beatles, right? ‘course you do! That’s because you belong to some subset of the umbrella group Human Being With A Soul. So, enjoying the music of the Fab Four as you do, you rushed right out to theaters to catch director Julie Taymor’s gonzo Beatles fantasia Across the Universe, right? ‘course you didn’t! That’s because you also belong to some subset of the umbrella classification The Movie-Going Public; and nobody from that demographic appears to have bought a ticket.
Well, not exactly nobody. The movie, which cost $45 million to make, did a worldwide gross of $25 million, playing on les than a thousand US screens at the height of its release. So, at a guess, it managed to scare up an audience of terrifying Beatles lifestylers, the friends and families of its cast and crew, and possibly Ringo (although he’s been pretty busy of late, apparently). Peter Frampton was allegedly ejected from a matinee engagement for shouting at the screen: “Ha! It’s not so easy, is it?”
You see, Across the Universe is an attempt to uncover — or impose — a narrative thread on a string of beloved standalone pop songs. Or, as the DVD box coyly puts it, avoiding the B-word altogether, “Within the lyrics of the world’s most famous songs lives a story that has never been told… until now.” It’s a bit like Mamma Mia, or (God help us) that legendary, coke-addled career-killer that was 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band.
It would be bad form to speculate on what kind of drugs Julie Taymor is on, but she is surely possessed of the kind of batshit visual imagination that gets a director labeled as “visionary.” She came out of experimental theater before being tapped to bring Disney’s The Lion King to Broadway; that show was a commercial and artistic triumph, assimilating the techniques of the avant-garde — masks, puppetry, mime — into a mainstream family entertainment. Her first film, Titus, was a bloody, perverse revenge tragedy with eye-popping visuals.
So, as you’d expect, Across the Universe always looks great. Unfortunately, Taymor hasn’t got Shakespeare providing the screenplay this time around. Screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian LeFrenais approach the material in the most obvious way possible, naming the leads Jude and Lucy, Sadie and Jo-Jo, Maxwell and Prudence. The occasional clever touches fail by drawing attention to themselves; when a character enters through a bathroom window, for instance, it’s cute and knowing — and then somebody spoils it by saying, “She came in through the bathroom window.” When an old fellow talks of imagining what life would be like “when I’m sixty-four,” it should be a throwaway, but it lands with a clang.
Okay, but nobody watches a musical for dialogue. What about the plot? Well, it’s a story of tumultuous times, of young people rejecting the values of their parents and searching for their own identities; a story of drugs, sexual freedom, and personal liberation, of the looming specter of the Vietnam War and of new possibilities for personal and political expression at home…
Wait a minute, I’ve heard this story before! This is the extraordinary hidden narrative? This is “a story that has never been told”? Funny: where I’m sitting, it sounds like the fucking Boomers have been telling it non-stop FOR THE LAST FORTY GODDAM YEARS.
Sigh. Okay, heigh-ho, it’s the story of the Sixties — again. Such plot as there is has been pinched liberally from Hair, especially in the nightmarish scenes of military induction. In brief, it dramatizes the dichotomy of responses to the idea of liberation by focusing on a pair of lovers; for the English boy Jude it’s primarily about personal freedom, escaping his working-class background to pursue his dreams of being an artist, while the upper-class Lucy is drawn into radical politics that become ever more violent and absolutist. Also, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix are in a band together, and they write all the Beatles’ songs. Seriously, that’s the plot. It’s all pretty nuts.
The phrase “Beatles musical” may make you wince instinctively — imagining over-orchestrated Muzak versions — but music director Elliot Goldenthal eschews any Josh Groban-y showtune aesthetic for the conversational quality that enlivens the Lennon/McCartney originals. The arrangements often veer towards the aggressively spare, sometimes to lovely effect, as with “If I Fell.”
That’s Evan Rachel Wood singing there. I’ve liked her before, especially in Down In the Valley, enough that I can forgive her for boinking Marilyn Manson — and she’ll get naked at the drop of a hat, which livens things up a bit. Jim Sturgess as Jude is solid, with a high keen rather like Ewan MacGregor’s in Moulin Rouge. Joe Anderson as Max has a young Denis Leary quality. Taymor does indulge in some stunt-casting; there’s a Joe Cocker cameo — singing a pretty great version of “Come Together,” no less — along with Salma Hayek as a naughty nurse, and—in the film’s most eminently skippable scene—Eddie Izzard embarrassing himself as Mr. Kite, frolicking among giant puppets on loan from a protest march circa 1988. There’s even a turn by motherfucking Bono, affecting a southwestern accent and unfortunate facial hair as a Ken Kesey figure. (The DVD is presented in widescreen format, by the way, so that the frame can accommodate both Bono and his ego, twice again as big as him.)
Does it work as a musical? Not really. The songs are ultimately too familiar, and no amount of recontextualizing can make us believe that they grow organically out of this story. The film can never quite commit to being an all-out jukebox, though, and so keeps returning to its ostensibly naturalistic plot. But it’s so eager to touch on all the hot-button concerns of the 1960s counterculture, it starts to feel schematic after a while. You can imagine the filmmakers running down a checklist: Protest march? Got it. Race relations? Got it. Gay liberation? Check. Drug addiction? Check. Next? Not unlike the radical politics of the 60s, Across the Universe overreaches and devolves into woolly-headed piffle for a while, sagging badly in the middle before an eleventh-hour injection of plot points that nearly kills the film stone dead before it limps to a finish. By that point, it seems like the film has lasted as long as the 60s themselves (45 years and counting, by Boomer reckoning).
But here’s the thing: with all that being said, I had a blast watching this picture.
As a complete film, Across the Universe is a train wreck, a hodge-podge of influences and clichÃ©s — but any given fifteen-minute stretch of it is insanely entertaining. The dance sequences, with their constant acrobatic hoofing, are both old-fashioned and forward-looking — Donald O’Connor meets Jackie Chan. The film’s earlier sections feature the most athletically-oriented choreography since High School Musical, especially a slo-mo football scrimmage that looks more like a Tsui Hark action movie, playing behind a slow version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” here recast as a song of lesbian yearning.
The music is comfortably familiar and excitingly new all at once, and there’s always something gorgeous to look at, with some of the compositions attaining that state the movie critics call “painterly”: a rain of flaming strawberries, an underwater embrace, military inductees in their underwear carrying a scale model of Lady Liberty on their shoulders across a miniature jungle scene — all satisfyingly audacious and crazy. Just don’t try to watch it in one sitting. Try it in chunks, over the course of a couple of days, groove on the crackpot ambition of it all, and I can almost guarantee you’ll have a ball.
As for Julie Taymor, she’s currently at work on a stage musical based on the Spider-Man comics, with songs by the guys from U2; Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess may be reunited as Mary Jane and the wall-crawler. If this show ever actually happens — and with an official title and opening date finally announced this week, it looks as if it just might — it will be the most expensive Broadway production ever, and will probably be an absolute mess. That being said, I would sell a kidney for tickets to opening night. Julie Taymor may be crazy, but she is blessedly, audaciously crazy, the kind of crazy that results in art that makes me happy; I am glad to live in this world with her, and I thank her for making this glorious debacle of a movie.