Synopsis: Across The Universe from director Julie Taymor, is a revolutionary rock musical that re-imagines American in the turbulent late 1960s, a time when battle lines were being drawn at home and abroad.
When young dockworker Jude (Jim Sturgess) leaves Liverpool to find his estranged father in America, he is swept up by the waves of change that are re shaping the nation. Jude falls in love with Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a rich but sheltered American girl who joins the growing anti war movement in New York’s Greenwich Village. As the body count in Vietnam rises, political tensions at home spiral out of control and the star crossed lovers find themselves in a psychedelic world gone mad.
I wasn’t interested in ‘Across the Universe’ when it came out. For starters, it’s a frickin’ musical. I loathe musicals. LOATHE them. They make me ill. Secondly, it looked like a romantic flick for teens; I have nothing against romantic fiction geared towards younger audiences. Hardly – in fact, I have a few personal favourites. But the idea of combining this with musical numbers sounded far too sappy for me.
…even though it features music by The Beatles.
It not only features their songs, but the film is heavily constructed around the lyrics and music of The Beatles. As a fan of the band (albeit more so their ‘Revolver’ and later works), you’d think my curiosity would be piqued. But it wasn’t. Truth be told, I didn’t know that ‘Across the Universe’ was ALL Beatles music, which might have changed the game a little bit.
But what did change my opinion was when I heard the soundtrack version of “Let it Be” through a mix CD that someone gave me. I was so incredibly impressed with the arrangements and the style that I started wondering about the rest of the music. Could it all be as original and fresh as this? Then I started hearing that it was an exceptional soundtrack, after which I was told that it was a terrific film (my partner, for instance, has seen it a few times – and she rarely sees a movie twice! ).
So when I got the chance to pick up the 2CD version of the soundtrack for cheap I did. I’m listening to it for the first time as I write this, in fact (I wanted to wait to see the movie first!). I started looking for the movie on Blu-ray because I read that the format makes the most of this film’s audio-visual elements. When I saw it for a decent price, I grabbed it eagerly. And bumped the film up in list of things to see.
My first impression is a mixed one.
On the one hand, I was quite impressed with the quality of the film: it looked splendid and it sounded even better – it was well worth the extra expense to see it on BD (some of the audio was delicious, with all sorts of ear candy coming through from the various speakers – what a mix ). And some of the musical montages were quite original, with creative concepts bolstering the music.
I also appreciated the way that it was all pieced together, like one big puzzle. Since the original songs were never meant to tell one whole tale, I was quite impressed with the way that they were used to serve the story (at least in the beginning). And as one who enjoys making mixes, editing music together to fit a theme or concept, I was impressed with the skill with which this was done. Very nice.
On the other hand, I found the film emotionally barren. The performances were mostly unmoving, if not outright unconvincing, and the script offered so much déjà vu that it often didn’t even bother to explicitly explain what was going on – it assumed that we could fill in the blanks for ourselves. Sad to say but… yes, we most certainly could – the story was that conventional. And sometimes it would drop the ball altogether, skipping complete scenes and letting us flail wildly trying to figure out where certain characters had gone and why.
If I’m not pulled in emotionally, then a film only becomes a spectacle. And that’s the problem with this film for me. Sure, as spectacle, ‘Across the Universe’ succeeds tremendously. But, as far as the storytelling goes, it doesn’t really gel. Not only did it take these huge leaps plot-wise, leaving us dangling, but it sometimes felt like they wedged songs or even scenes into the film just to keep the story moving along – especially towards the last third, when whole bits were so inconsequential that they could have been substituted with ease.
The arrangements didn’t always work, but the music was generally quite good. My problem with musicals is that people will sing and dance about doing the dishes – just because they can. It makes me so angry I want to smash stuff (and I probably would if it didn’t make me more sick to my stomach than angry ). Here, being that the songs are from The Beatles, we are spared that agony. But every musical number feels like a music video. Individually, they can be fun – except that the film feels like a pastiche of music videos, for good or bad.
The key problem with these “music videos” is that the actors’ lip-synching isn’t always up to snuff – sometimes you believe that the voice coming from the character is the actor’s actual voice, but often it sounds like a total mismatch (which, let’s face it, probably is). For me, this makes the scenes hard to watch because I was already emotionally detached; in those moments I was now even unenthused about the technical side of things.
Another thing that bothered me was that every damned primary and secondary character was attractive in each their own way. I mean, really, is everyone in Hollywood so frickin’ attractive that they couldn’t wedge a few average-looking people or even a few “uglies” (relatively-speaking, obviously ) in there? Is the whole world a beauty pageant? Okay, okay… I admit that it’s not as bad as all that, but I couldn’t help but think that it’s hard relating to whole groups of beautiful people – most of us aren’t (not without the right make-up, lighting, poses, photographer and airbrusher, anyway).
I may sound like I hated the film, but I really didn’t: it’s a fun production. Frankly, you really can’t go wrong with a mix of The Beatles and a well-conceived spectacle (case-in-point: the Cirque du Soleil show ‘Love’, which is also based on The Beatles’ tunes). They would have had to really shoot themselves in the foot to ruin a mix such as this one.
However, it’s an emotionally-flat production that offers absolutely no truth. It’s a fantasy that purports to offer a slice of real life – but, in reality, it is strictly fantasy. Fantasies can be a total treat, and in that sense, one could do worse than ‘Across the Universe’. But I wonder if its vacuousness isn’t in ironic opposition with The Beatles’ messages; granted, they conveyed a certain innocence or naiveté, but I don’t like to believe that they were actually this superficial.
Although I have mixed feelings about ‘Across the Universe’, it was nonetheless a highly enjoyable film – and I suspect that with multiple viewings, with my expectations tapered properly, it will grow on me and I will actually appreciate more and more. It might even become a minor classic. At the very least, it will be one of those rare musicals that actually can enjoy.