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Rental Review: Across the Universe (2007)

July 16, 2011

The following film was requested by one Ms. Hill, as related to me by the Arkansas Anime Guy. If she does not care for this review, perhaps she should opt for Roger Ebert’s four-star review instead:

  • Dir. Julie Taymor
  • Released by Columbia
  • Based on songs by The Beatles
  • Rating: **

The Beatles appeared in a handful of motion pictures during the 1960s, including two Richard Lester films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and the animated classic Yellow Submarine. These movies are fun, light, and delightfully silly. Decades after the band’s breakup, Broadway musical director Julie Taymor (The Lion King) and noted film composer Elliot Goldenthal (Alien 3, Batman Forever) would collaborate to create a movie musical based on the songs of the Fab Four with the help of cameo performers Bono, Joe Cocker, Salma Hayek, and Eddie Izzard. The results, like the experiment itself, are quite interesting, but not particularly satisfying.

Jim Sturgess is our requisite Liverpool youth in the story, named Jude (guess which Beatles song will undoubtedly appear in this movie?). He engages in his own British Invasion by arriving at Princeton to find his father. He also happens to find a friend named Max (Joe Anderson), from whom he will have a little help (astonishingly, this is not the song that Cocker sings in the movie). Max’s sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), who conveniently just lost her boyfriend in Vietnam, moves in with the duo once they move to New York City, where they all live with some stand-ins for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. They all get swept up in the counterculture movement for the rest of the film’s 133-minute running time, allowing plenty of time for Jude and Lucy to hook up, break up, and hook up again in the final moments.

The songs sometimes flow naturally in the narrative, but they too often feel forced, and most of the covers of the classic songs just are not that impressive (the most notable exception being Cocker’s spectacular cover of “Come Together,” which itself justifies the existence of this movie). Even worse, the film becomes a “guess which song is coming next” game for Beatles fans, and thanks to the protagonist’s name, the main suspense is not how he will make up with Lucy, but rather how “Hey Jude” will be shoehorned into the storyline. Having said that, none of the covers are terrible, and the real problem lies in the film’s attempts to build a narrative to support their inclusion.

Said narrative would have been stronger if the original Beatles songs had been used to score the film–i.e. if the movie were not a musical. Maybe more time could have been spent on the scattered mess of character arcs throughout the movie, since the songs often harm the cohesion of the story. Alternatively, the film might have worked if executed like Alan Parker’s film Pink Floyd The Wall, since Across the Universe often stops the show to provide similarly trippy treatments of the more psychedelic Beatles offerings. Speaking of the song choices, fans of early Beatles tunes will likely be disappointed that the soundtrack shoves those songs mostly in the first half hour and favors the later work.

Much like the two warring generations of the late 1960s, the story and the songs fight against each other for domination, but unlike Jude and Lucy, they do not find a satisfying reconciliation by the end of the film. As such, the movie always feels off, whether it’s engaging in a typical “express your feelings through song and dance” style or a more avant-garde approach. By dragging on for too long and focusing on too many underdeveloped supporting characters, the movie does not do its leads justice. By dedicating so much time to Vietnam and the hippies, the movie does not do The Beatles’ entire discography justice. By following a rather standard depiction of the era and clumsily setting up its songs, the movie does not do its premise justice.

Beatles fanatics will still likely find the movie at least worth of one endurance round, just out of curiosity, but non-fans (which apparently do exist, as hard as that is for me to believe) will find nothing of interest here, and the movie is unlikely to win over new devotees. Personally, I found myself begging the movie to stop being so scatterbrained and to “Come together/Right now/Over me!” Apparently, though, all the filmmakers thought they needed was love, not cohesion, and my recommendation is that anyone who is not intrigued by the idea of a Beatles-inspired musical should “Let it be.”

Then again, my daughter seemed to enjoy the bright colors and admittedly splendid cinematography and high production value, as evidenced by her insistence that we spend the rest of the night listening to my old Beatles albums. As beautiful and well-executed as the film’s imagery and dance choreography often are, though, I would suggest that you just skip straight to the albums (or just put in one of the real Beatles movies for a cinematic fix). That is, after you watch the Joe Cocker scene.


From → Film Criticism

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