Across the Universe (Revolution Studios/Sony Pictures, 2007)

With Across the Universe, director Julie Taymor has accomplished something that I heretofore would have considered impossible. I must admit that I was predisposed to dislike this movie, intensely, for three reasons. First, this is a musical where the actors break into song every few minutes and while there are a number of movies in which this technique works for me, they are few and far between.

Evan Rachel Wood

Second, and this is the really big one, I generally can't stand to see the Beatles' canon messed with. While I ordinarily love great cover versions and tributes, the Beatles are probably the most difficult band to cover as was illustrated by the recent tribute to Rubber Soul. If your new version strays too far from the original, it can seem labored and precious, and if your version sounds too much like the original it just seems pointless, you may as well just listen to the Beatles. This double edged sword initially seemed insurmountable when considering that Across the Universe consists of a love story told almost completely by the actors singing the songs of the Beatles. Third, when this movie was released in late 2007, it got very mixed reviews, and when I happened to check out one scene out of context in a theater, I saw nothing to counter the negative view.

Listen to Jim Sturgess - "All My Loving"

With all that said, having now viewed Across the Universe in it's entirety, it took about the first half hour (until the bowling alley scene) to break down my preconceptions and misgivings, and I am pleased to conclude that this movie is a work of pure genius, start to finish. The Beatles' music is so utterly familiar and so much a part of our cultural lexicon and shared experience, that we can't help but take it for granted. Across the Universe pulls off the astounding feat of making us reconsider this music, to hear it again with new ears, and to hear new depth and in some cases even find new meaning in the music. After all the years, to now come away from this movie with a new appreciation for the Beatles' music is something totally unexpected, shocking and revelatory.

Listen to Jim Sturgess - "Something"

(L-R) Julie Taymor, Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood & Joe Anderson

Equalling the musical accomplishment of this movie, the story and the visual conception are like nothing ever seen before. The cinematography is gorgeous, the choreography and direction is as good as it gets. My initial impression that the scenes seemed contrived to fit the lyrics of the songs, quickly melted away with the realization that the construct of the movie gives the viewer a new visual context for each song, totally and sometimes radically different than the cliched visualization that one might expect. I could cite many examples, but this dazzlingly imaginative approach is evident in virtually every scene, every song. Singing "Come Together", Joe Cocker appears in four separate scenes, first as a bum, then a pimp, then a long-haired street hippie, then again as the pimp, all during the course of the song. "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" actually gets three interpretations while the song plays, the first dealing with Max's induction into the army, complete with Uncle Sam recruiting posters coming to life to sing "I Want You!" and before it ends we also get love (with an adept camera cut) both realized and unrequited.

Listen to Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs & T.V. Carpio - "I Want You (She's So Heavy)"

Contributing to the excellence of this movie are a collection of supremely gifted actors who do such a great job singing these songs that never once does it seem like a song was shortchanged by having an actor sing it. Julie Taymor explains in the DVD commentary that about eighty percent of the singing was recorded live as the movie was filmed, avoiding the canned feel of lip-synched vocals. Another giant reason that the songs sound so good and work so well in the move is the guidance of ├╝ber-producer T-Bone Burnett and the other musical production staff and vocal coaches. Burnett has a long history as a producer of helping artists to make the best records of their career; he also guided Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix to pull off totally believable performances as Johnny and June Carter Cash in Walk the Line. In Across the Universe the arrangements are perfect, and together with the excellent vocals manage to avoid the many pitfalls of covering the Beatles and the result is pure joy.

Listen to all six lead actors harmonize on "Because".

Leads Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy and Jim Sturgess as Jude (if you haven't seen the movie, the use of familiar names from Beatle songs may seem cheesy but in context it totally works) sing their parts even better than one could hope. Sturgess in particular sounds absolutely authentic speaking in a Liverpool accent that he had to adopt for the movie (he's British but from London not Liverpool), and he sounds so great singing the Beatles that after seeing this movie you'll want the soundtrack CD.

Dana Fuchs

Dana Fuchs has performed as Janis Joplin in the off-broadway production of Love, Janis; her songs on the Sherrybaby soundtrack made that CD a must buy, and is a complete knockout here in her role here as Sadie, with vocal work that brings to mind the best aspects of both Joplin and Tina Turner. Martin Luther McCoy as JoJo totally kills in every scene he's in and every song he sings, plus he adds some excellent lead guitar. Joe Anderson as Max, plays American so well you'd never know he's really British, and nails every song that comes his way. T.V. Carpio shines as Prudence, who not only sounds great but at one point actually gets to come in through the bathroom window. Some excellent smaller roles with equally impressive vocal performances are turned in by Joe Cocker ("Come Together"), Eddie Izzard ("Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"), and Bono ("I am the Walrus"). Bono also gets to sing "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" during the closing credits.

Listen to Martin Luther McCoy - "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

The core material of Beatles songs is iconic, both musically and lyrically, but Across the Universe also includes an astounding number of Beatles references way beyond the songs. Dana Fuchs' character may be named Sadie, but we never actually hear the song "Sexy Sadie" in the film. Ditto for the aforementioned bathroom window. Jim Sturgess' character Jude is a graphic artist who while considering ideas for a logo for Sadie's record label, first looks at a green apple, even going so far as to slice it in half, before settling on a Strawberry (see the soundtrack CD cover below). Such references are too numerous to count. The nice thing is that they are mostly subtle, there for the discovering by those who know.

Jim Sturgess in Liverpool Across the Universe is also rife with historical, political, social and cultural references of the sixties. They fly at you constantly, sometimes combining, twisting, turning, some specific, some more generally drawn. Essentially the entire decade is compressed representationally into the two year time span of the story. Bono's Dr. Robert character for example takes the cast on a road trip in a psychedelic school bus, evoking Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters; at their destination they are turned away because "Dr. Geary" (Timothy Leary) is too busy to see them. The psychedelic visuals are stunning, mostly achieved by solarization with some dramatically vivid colors; we've seen psychedelic visual effects many times before, but not quite like this.

Evan Rachel Wood & Jim Sturges

The movie ends delightfully with a rooftop concert that nicely mirrors the Beatles last live performance as documented in Let It Be complete with the police stopping the show for lack of permit. All I can say is that if the final shot doesn't bring a smile to your face, there's something terribly wrong with you. I am happy to have had all my preconceptions and prejudices exploded and in the end be totally blown away by Across the Universe.

Listen to Dana Fuchs - "Don't Let Me Down" and "All You Need Is Love" during the rooftop concert.

What about the soundtrack CD? I bought the deluxe two disc version the week it was released last fall, but never broke the shrinkwrap at the time for fear that it would suck; my first move after the movie ended was to load the 31 songs onto my iPod. Listening in the cold clear light of day, the CD stands on it's own as one of the best collections of Beatles interpretations I've heard in a very long time, maybe ever. Stripped of all the visual input, the details of the music, arrangements, and performances emerge and sound great. Many of the songs begin acapella, with the instrumentation coming in gradually, to maximum effect. The stylistic choices in the production of the songs are spot on brilliant and are a major factor in the artistic success of the movie. While I cannot describe the first impression that the music might make on someone who has not first seen the movie, viewing the movie first definitely provides a frame of reference that enhances the listening.

All photos courtesy Sony Pictures.

Across the Universe Website.
Dana Fuchs' Website.
Martin Luther McCoy's Website.


Charlie Ricci said…
Having just seen this movie last night at your strong suggestion I must say that I agree with every word you wrote here. The detail and vivid clarity with which you explained this film should make any Beatles fan, want to see it.

The usage of music and current events from around 40 years ago doesn't stop this movie from being a totally original work of art in lieu of a mere tribute to this iconic band.
Sara said…
I remembered this review, so I checked the movie out of the library and have so far watched about half of it. I honestly can't decide if it's utter genius or completely retarded. I love the concept and the music kills, but the love story and recreation of the 60s are pretty cliched, pedestrian stuff. On the other hand, the music KILLS (but still, I'm wary because, well ...I love these songs so much I'd probably even enjoy the Teletubbies singing them).

In any case, I've got a a bunch more to watch, so I'll get back to you. :)

(Have I mentioned that the music KILLS?)
William Kates said…
After seeing this a few more times since I wrote the review, I would come down now even more solidly in the genius camp, however there's no predicting how someone else will react. I screened it for my daughter who cut her teeth on Help! and A Hard Days Night and she didn't seem to think it was anything special. I pick up new references each time I watch, and love that the Beatles references are somewhat sideways; my awe at the construction and choreography of the thing just grows and grows.

Sara responded...
I really, REALY liked it, despite its arguable cheesy glibness. The Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin characters were both great, the choreography was amazing and I'm looking forward to getting the soundtrack. Next time I'll attempt to watch the whole movie before bloviating. You can post that as an addendum, if you like. :)
This movie was beautiful... :')

Popular posts from this blog

Remembering the Main Point, 1964 - 1981

Cream and Blind Faith at the Spectrum, Philadelphia, 1968 & 1969

And We Danced - Filming the Hooters Video, 7/27/85