Across the Universe
You cannot help but admire — even be in awe of — brilliant director Julie Taymor’s extraordinary vision. Her films (Titus, Frida) are those rare works of art that succeed in merging cinematic splendor with Broadway aesthetics (she got her start on the stage and directed the wildly successful “The Lion King” on Broadway) to create something wholly original and entirely imaginative. And although her latest film, Across the Universe doesn’t completely work, when it does, you’re in for one wild and wonderful ride.
It is almost pointless to discuss the plot of Across the Universe since it is utterly subservient to and driven by the music. Across the Universe is one, long Beatles music video with short snatches of dialogue crammed in between. The story is not as important as the 33 — count them — 33 Beatles songs the film includes. You know all these songs. You’re not only singing them going out of the theater, you’re already singing them coming in.
Irregardless of the plot’s secondary nature, it is nonetheless epic in scope. Encompassing the turbulent 60s in all of their incongruity, Across the Universe tackles academia, race riots, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, drug use, protest marches, rock and roll, PTSD, and rebellious youth. It is the story of a time and place, less than individual persons, even if the problems they face look remarkably like our own. Characters like Jude, Lucy and Prudence exist, not for the sake of the plot, but because the songs give them life. That the give and take between the dialogue-driven scenes and the musical numbers is such an organic process speaks to Taymor’s powerful aesthetic.
Unfortunately, Across the Universe doesn’t quite work. The film is overlong and feels more protracted than it is simply because the dialogue — not the filmmakers’ number one concern — cannot support our interest. During the expository scenes, we find ourselves yearning for the next musical number to begin. And criticism or no, Taymor and company are probably just fine with that assessment. We have little to no access into the characters when they speak, but when they sing we are admitted into their very souls.
Some of the songs exist in reality, with characters simply singing through a scene. Others are operatic and highly theatrical, incorporating dance choreography that is a feast for the eyes as well as ears. Still others, especially as the film taps Beatles songs from their psychedelic phase, come across as surreal experimental films, exaggerated, heightened states more akin to dream sequences. More than once I was reminded of the extraordinary Moulin Rouge.
The film boasts several guest stars (Joe Cocker, Salma Hayek, Eddie Izzard), though none are more enjoyable or anticipated than U2 frontman, Bono, who plays Dr. Robert, a composite of Timothy Leery and Jack Kerouac. Not only can Bono act, but he can also do a spot-on American accent.
Despite its faults, much of Across the Universe is infectious, whimsical fun. At its worst it is slow and clunky; at its best it is transcendent.