Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe is a polarizing film – I strongly doubt there will be viewers who walk out of it with “take it or leave it” attitude. It’s a saga of four intertwined journeys, all connected by visuals that cry out to be referred to as psychedelic, and the music of the Beatles – which is almost exclusively used as dialogue by the characters. It’s a twisted and brilliantly produced piece that will not leave you unmarked.
The film opens with glimpses of four characters: in a high school prom, Lucy [Evan Rachel Wood is singing All My Loving to her boyfriend who is about to head off to Vietnam/in The Cavern nightclub in Liverpool, Jude [Jim Sturgess] is singing the song to the girlfriend he’s leaving behind as he heads to the United States to find his father.
On the roof of a cathedral, Max [Joe Anderson] and some friends are driving golf balls off the roof and through the window of a fraternity – then fleeing as the fraternity brothers come charging out of the hall. Meanwhile, on an Ohio high school football field, an Asian-American cheerleader, Prudence [T.V. Carpio] watches the quarterback of the school’s football team as he chats with the blond leader of the cheerleader squad – after her performance of I Want To Hold Your Hand, you may never see the song as an exuberant expression of first love again. The next time we see her, she’s hitchhiking away from Ohio.
Max and Jude meet as Jude helps Max pick up some dropped texts and papers, and Max directs Jude to the man who may be Jude’s dad. When things don’t go as well with his dad as he might have hoped, Jude accepts Max’s invitation to his home for Thanksgiving, where he meets Max’s somewhat fractious and mildly dysfunctional family – and first sees Lucy.
Despite his wishes, Max drops out and heads to9 New York with his new found friend. Lucy joins them for her summer vacation and winds up falling in love with Jude and staying. The three wind up living in a sublet from a Janis Joplin-esque singer named Sadie [Dana Fuchs]. Sadie’s band needs a guitarist and that brings the Hendrix-like JoJo [Martin Luther McCoy] into the picture.
From there the plot references Joplin’s break up from big Brother and the Holding Company; Hendrix’s formation of The Experience; and the Beatles’ rooftop concert that included both Let It Be and Hey Jude. The omnipresence of the Vietnam War shadows the lives of all the characters in much the same way that Beatles songs form about two-thirds of their dialogue.
While it would be easy to say that Across The Universe is using the Viet Nam War to comment on Iraq, that would be simplistic/kind of dumb. It’s about the loss of innocence that comes with first love lost; the kind of disappointment when a parent doesn’t live up to one’s expectations; the joy of true love; the mistakes that we all make on every level, about pretty much everything.
Taymor’s direction leads into excursions of hyper-reality [incorporating NBC archival footage on the Viet Nam War in juxtaposition with violent police reaction to peace marches and the Detroit riots that leave dead one sweet-voiced boy whose funeral we say after he sings the opening verse of Let It Be], out and out psychedelia [Eddie Izzard’s bizarre, yet not out of place For The Benefit of Mr. Kite], and harsh reality [the paymaster at the shipyard where Jude worked lamenting the fact that he hadn’t expected to still be there “when I’m sixty-four].
If Across The Universe is intended as a statement film, there are many things that could be – Iraq is only one of them, and likely not the most important. Fighting for your dreams would be right up there, as would be the importance of true friends [the ones who love you enough to call you on your $#!+ – and are willing to let you call them on theirs.
There are sixteen Beatles songs used over the course of the film and it’s a reminder of how amazing that music was [and is]. Take I’ve Just Seen a Face, sung by Jude in a bowling alley where he realizes that he’s falling in love with Lucy. By upping the tempo and adding mandolin and fiddle, The Dillards turned the song into a wicked bluegrass rave up. Here, by simply adding a button accordion and mixing the bass drum up the tiniest bit, it comes as a fine pub rocker. While I’ve mentioned Let It Be, the rest of the song is turned into a spiritual at the boy’s funeral – and sounds entirely appropriate!
Sometimes, we don’t even need to hear the song for it to be an effective piece in terms of the film. Besides the shipyard paymaster, the reference to She Came In Through The Bathroom Window takes a literal turn that is one of the best comic bits in the film.
Across The Universe might not have any resonance for a lot of today’s audience being as it is, set in a time forty-plus years ago, but the universality of Beatles music and the connections that people make are still pretty much the same, so it’s definitely worth checking out. For Beatles fans – especially those who were there when these songs were current hits – this is a must see event.
Final Grade: A-
Eclipse Review by Sheldon Wiebe
Originally Posted on 09/29/07