Across the Universe, the Julie Taymor musical theatrical release based entirely on songs by The Beatles is proof that I'm not the only one who thinks like this. In fact, my main issue here is that I didn't think of doing this very thing first.
As an avid (better make that RABID and life long) Beatles fan who is currently on a complete and total Beatles Kick, it's easy to state that I am (and ought to be) pretty particular about my Beatles music. While certainly not perfect, Across the Universe is a fitting tribute (when the tribute fits) and manages to work quite well as a movie, as a musical and as a collection of great songs. That said, it doesn't always work to its full potential and the occasional square peg is thrust jaggedly into the occasional round hole.
But the intent and attempt is there and the fact that Taymor along with co-writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais made a watchable musical out of varied and unconnected songs by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr that is not only good but completely engrossing is noteworthy in and of itself.
Make no mistake, this is a Musical. This isn't a film that follows a lot of divergent measures from Beatles songs with a little musical accompaniment. Yes, there is an independent score (by Elliot Goldenthal), but even that is filled with (credited) musical motifs by the Beatles. That's not all, folks! No, this film goes all out with full on Choreography (by Daniel Ezralow) and full length, largely unaltered Beatles songs sung and performed by the cast themselves, along with notable guest stars... all of whom have names from Beatles songs too. Primarily, however, it's about the songs, the songs by and the characters inspired by the Beatles!
Jim Sturgess is Jude, a Liverpuldian dock worker who leaves his mother Martha (Angela Mounsey) and girlfriend Molly (Lisa Hogg) to travel to tue USA to find his long lost father Wes (Robert Clohessy). Along the way he meets the free wheeling Princeton student Maxwell Carrigan (instead of Edison, who isn't majoring in medicine and doesn't carry around a Silver Hammer with any real regularity), played by Joe Anderson. It's Max that introduces Jude to the United States, first through his Dorm mates (in the form of a rousing rendition of "With a Little Help From My Friends" that seamlessly transitions from the Beatles version to the Cocker version), then through his family... most notably his beautiful sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). When Jude meets Lucy, it's love at first site (not that I'm certain that it happens all the time)... even without her flying around amid precious gems.
It isn't long before Jude and Max have moved to New York (where John Lennon eventually made his home) living in a shared space owned by Sexy Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and eventually occupied by Ching Valdes-Aran's Luna Park, T.V. Caprio's Prudence and Martin Luther McCoy's JoJo.
Through these characters, Taymor and company explore the times during which the Beatles were recording with both a lighthearted and psychedelic bend and a heavy, heart wrenching strength. Across the Universe studies the Do-Wop early sixties and their transition into the era of the Civil Rights Movement, Viet Nam War, the Draft, the Counter Culture and Anti-War movement, along with the surreal psychedelia that goes along with it.
Although this film is guided by The Beatles' lyrics and one of their experiences, Across the Universe exists in another world where The Beatles didn't exist, nor did many of the other movers and shakers of the day. To this end, many of the characters assume the roles of the musicians and, in some cases, the music itself.
Sexy Sadie easily becomes a pastiche of Janis Joplin (and has the voice to pull it off, too) with her club singing and amazing dress. JoJo easily fills the role of Sadie's lead guitarist, slowly but surely becoming a pastiche of Jimi Hendrix in the process. There's even a record company called Strawberry Jams representing Apple Corps. Meanwhile the songs dictate what role these and other characters might assume as the tale progresses.
Nor does it progress without help. U2's Bono shows up to bring us the psychedelic yogi and groovy groovy guru Dr. Robert, Eddie Izzard drops in as Mr. Kite, topping his own bill in a trampoline circus show and the great Joe Cocker (the only man who, up until now, I could ever give good credit to for a Beatles cover) shows up as three characters (a Bum, a Pimp and a Mad Hippie). Most notably, of course, was the appearance by Salma Hayek as all five of the Singing Nurses. Man, five identical Salma Hayeks dressed in sexy nurse outfits. Somebody went and filmed my fantasy.
This very fluidity of character and re-application of song leads to some of the flaws in Across the Universe. Some of the songs fit perfectly with their visual subject matter, even when it differs from what the Beatles actually wrote about. A noteworthy example would be "I Want You/ She's So Heavy", which worked surprisingly well coming out of Uncle Sam's mouth. It's likewise great to see how easily "I Want to Hold your Hand" lends itself to becoming a Lesbian ballad. Further, often a song will be placed in the mouth of an actual performer on stage with a band, which helps to no end.
However, not all the songs work quite so well here. The occasional song feels like a "wouldn't it be nice" moment that doesn't quite move the plot along or add anything significant besides the opportunity for another cameo (and Beatles character name). It was to the point that I almost expected Eleanor Rigby to walk out with Sgt. Pepper and someone named Abbey Road for a quick number about foolishly looking through Glass Onions while on a hill in an Octopus' Garden.
Speaking of which, all of the character names are welcome here, of course, but these aren't precise carbon copies (which is good) of their textual counterparts. Lucy isn't found in the sky with diamonds, JoJo comes from Detroit, not Tucson, Max isn't an endearing serial killer, and so on. However, when these things work they work perfectly. Having a character named Jude in a musical, you're just asking for the song "Hey Jude" to come off as a bad joke. When the time comes for that number, it's just right and works amazingly well. While it may seem a bit obvious to have a gay character named Prudence locking herself in the closet, only to have the other characters sing "Dear Prudence" (which contains the frequent lyric "Prudence, won't you come out"... and she's literally in the closet), this gives way to one of the more beautiful scenes therein. Even the brief and tasteful nudity is done beautiful artistic justice as Jude sings Harrison's "Something" to Lucy.
Though the plot holes create pot holes on the long road these characters wind down, the whole is a beautiful thing, packed with psychedelia, obscure references to the 1960s (primarily, but not exclusively to The Beatles) and a strong sense of Romance, Comedy and Drama. It all leads up to a great ending that will hopefully please fans of both John, Paul, George and Ringo and of Musicals in general. Those on the fence, particularly fans of the Fab Four should give this one a chance before judging. This is not a repeat of the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and while Across the Universe does take some liberties, it works out to be a beautiful and worthwhile film fully earning its (Fab) Four Stars out of Five. From the first moment when Sturgess looks into the camera lens and asks "Is there anybody going to listen to my story..." to the final tripped out credit sequence (rolling by as Bono returns to sing "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", Across the Universe is a great film and stands up to repeated viewings. Naturally, there is no substitute for the original songs played by the original Fab Four, however, Taymor, Clement and La Frenais don't try to make this a replacement. Only a valid companion piece. This might not be a story any of the Liverpuldian Quartet originally intended, but it's also far from a travesty. Personally, I love it... and love is all you need.
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