Images of broken light which Dance before me like a million eyes That call me on and on across the universe Thoughts meander like a Restless wind inside a letter box They tumble blindly as They make their way across the universe
These lyrics from the song John Lennon called his most poetic describe this movie, which bears its name, perfectly. “Across the Universe” is the kind of movie which hits you emotionally and surrounds you with overwhelming music and images. Yes, there are characters and yes, there’s a plot; and although, as some critics have pointed out, the characters are stereotypes (or iconic, depending on how you look at it) and the plot weak and predictable, that’s not important. In other words, it’s not what you say but how you say it. And director Julie Taymor says it extremely well and originally. It’s in the style of the 1960s and yet it also reflects a maturity of four decades of hindsight. It’s not a rehash of 40-year-old material, but a unique re-imagining of 60s music, ideals, and style.
This musical, set entirely to songs by the Beatles, tells the story of Jude (Jim Sturgess) who travels from England to the US and meets and befriends Max (Joe Anderson) and then falls in love with his sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). The three run away to New York and crash at a Greenwich Village pad belonging to Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and also hang out with guitarist JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy) and lesbian Prudence (T. V. Carpio). As they travel the iconic 60s landscape, they meet up with an acid guru (U2’s Bono) and a psychedelic circus master (Eddie Izzard). Jude becomes an artist, Lucy gets involved with radical anti-war protests, Sadie launches a music career, and Max gets drafted and sent to Vietnam. Sure, you can see it coming a mile away, but that misses the point of just how artistically the whole film is rendered.
The movie is smart enough to not be a history lesson nor a political lecture, although it overflows with history and politics. But it doesn’t feel it has to explain the era; rather it just pulls you inside and lets you feel it. With the exceptions of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Columbia University protests, the film doesn’t recreate specific 60s moments; rather it fashions things that are similar to famous cultural phenomena of the time. For example, the political organization Lucy joins is very much like Students for a Democratic Society, but instead it is called Students for Democratic Reform. Characters evoke Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendricks, Ken Kessy, and Abbie Hoffman without actually being them.
As rooted in the 60s as this movie is, it still speaks to today. Certainly the US’s blunder into and escalation of the Vietnam War reminds one of another war that’s going on currently. And in fact, in one particular anti-war speech, in which a protestor complains how the US’s actions are isolating its allies, one only need replace the word “Vietnam” with the word “Iraq” and it could sound very contemporary.
Not all the songs are done exactly as the Beatles originally sang them. And that’s okay, because if I wanted to hear that, I’d just stay home and play my Beatles CDs. Music Director Elliot Goldenthal respectfully breathes new life into some of these classics, giving them a fresh sound and, in a few cases, whole new interpretations. For example, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is no longer a snappy, cheerful tune, but rather a sad ballad of a love that can never be. And “I Want You” has been re-imagined as a military drafting and induction song.
Also, don’t expect all of your favorite Beatles tunes to be represented. One might ask, how can you have a Beatles tribute without “Yesterday” or “Eleanor Rigby” or “Nowhere Man” or “Love Me Do” or whichever one is your favorite. But this isn’t a Beatles tribute nor a definitive catalog of their music. Rather, songs have been chosen to help tell a story; quite frankly, I’m amazed that they got as many in there as they did. Although there may be some classics missing, the music that is in the film is really just wonderful. But perhaps that goes without saying, since it was all written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, two of the greatest composers of the 20th Century.
Most importantly, however, the visual effects are stunning. Although I suspect digital technology was used, they are clearly reminiscent of the 1960s style of film experimentation. The most stunning of these is the sequence for “Strawberry Fields Forever” in which images of Jude creating and destroying a painting of bright red strawberries dripping blood are contrasted with images of Max in Vietnam and animated strawberry bombs dropping on Vietnamese villages. It’s hard to describe with words—rather it’s something that must be experienced to understand.
And basically, that’s what this film is—an experience. A powerful and emotional one. Traditional elements of plot, character, and structure are played down so that music and images can overwhelm your senses and heighten your film-going experience. Open yourself up to that. That is, after all, what the 60s counterculture was all about.
Tune in and turn on, but definitely don’t drop out of this movie; it’s one of the best this year.
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