Across the Universe

Posted on February 5, 2008 at 12:11 pm

On the list of movies featuring Beatles songs, this one comes far below A Hard Day’s Night, Yellow Submarine, Let It Be, and Help but slightly above Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, maybe somewhere around Magical Mystery Tour. across%20the%20universe.jpg

Director Julie Taymor is best known for Broadway version of “The Lion King,” which is itself best known for its visual splendor. And least known for its plot. There is visual splendor in this story of characters coping with the 60’s, to the tune of Beatles songs, but not much by way of plot. And the song covers by most of its stars are strictly with Beatles Night on “American Idol.” In one of those early episodes before much elimination.

For people who remember the 60’s, the movie’s look and sound will be poor competition for the kaleidoscopic visual and aural brilliance of the original Beatles creations and the story and characters will be superficial and simplistic compared to the kaleidoscopic upheavals of the era.

Those who know the Beatles’ work will find the movie’s references uninspired recreations rather than re-imaginings or responses. The character names say it all: Jude, Lucy, Max, Sadie, Rita, Prudence, JoJo, Dr. Robert, Mr. Kite, get it? Too on the nose. Max has a hammer. The singer and her band play on the roof until the police come to shut them down. People not familiar with the 60’s will wonder what the fuss was about.

There are some very clever touches in the staging of the musical numbers, as when at an induction physical, the Uncle Sam posters sing “I Want You” or in a couple of scenes where one song is played in sharply contrasting contexts. There are also some brilliant images, especially when the characters experiment with hallucinogens. But the story and characters are thin and so are the singing voices of most of the performers, with Eddie Izzard’s Mr. Kite, Bono’s Dr. Robert, and newcomer Dana Fuchs as a Janis Joplin-eque Sadie as welcome exceptions.

But they are supporting roles with too-brief appearances as the center stage goes to the featherweight story about a romance between blue collar Liverpudlian Jude (Jim Sturgess) and an American suburban princess named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose boyfriend was killed in Viet Nam. Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) and Jude move into one of those adorably Bohemian, summer of love, starving artist garrets in Greenwich Village, run by Sadie (Fuchs). They are soon joined by Jimi Hendrix-ish JoJo (Martin Luther) and unhappy-in-love Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who came in through the bathroom window, get it? Jude wants to be an artist; Lucy wants to protest the war. And everybody goes on a magical mystery tour and meets Dr. Robert and Mr. Kite.

It is overlong and under-written, visually vibrant but thematically transparent. The characters are more alive in the original Beatles songs than they are on the screen. And that leaves us nowhere, man.

Parents should know that the characters in this movie drink, smoke, and use drugs, including marijuana and hallucinogenics. They briefly use strong language and there are some emotional confrontations. The movie includes battle violence in Viet Nam, police brutality, and an offscreen explosion of a bomb built by protesters against the war. Characters are injured and there are sad offscreen deaths. Images include nudity, some stylized, and non-explicit sexual situations. A strength of the movie is the loyal and supportive relationships between characters of racial, gender, and sexual orientation diversity.

Families who see this movie should discuss some of their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences during the 1960’s. And they should listen to the original versions of the Beatles songs. Why are these songs so enduring and what groups today are producing songs that people will still want to hear in 40 years?

Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy A Hard Day’s Night, Yellow Submarine, Let It Be, and Help, as well as other films about the 60’s like Alice’s Restaurant and Hair.

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Musical Romance

6 Replies to “Across the Universe”

  1. Oh goodness, Nell. I don’t often disagree with your reviews but come on, this film is splendid. So what if it’s amateur hour for some of the singer/actors? That just made me more comfortable in singing along. Having been in Berkeley in the day, I appreciated the tension between the radicals and the flower children. They were always sniping at each other. I really liked this film.

  2. Wonderful to hear from you, John! I am always happy when someone sees more in a movie than I do. For me, the thin storyline and equally thin singing voices came nowhere near the robust memories I had of the era and the original music. But I did admire the striking visuals, and am happy to see star Jim Sturgess doing so well. I hope you looked at my interview with him about “21,” posted last week.
    Always a pleasure to see what you have to say, especially when we disagree! Thanks for the comment.

  3. Although I love that you are very up front about what is IN a movie, I can’t help but think we run on different wavelengths.
    I LOVED this movie! It does have a storyline, even if it’s not deep or complex. You also failed to note that 90% of the songs sung were recorded durning the movie- no outtakes or sound studio redos. That impressed me even more. There’s not may “professional” musicians that can do that! My 8 yr old loves the music from it, even without seeing the movie! I have been able to open his eyes to music other than cartoon themes, and we discussed the 60’s and the Vitenam war. All in all, I think what it lacks in substance, it makes up for in sheer color. Plus, isn’t this what everyone thinks they remember form the 60’s?

  4. Jenna, you agree with my friend John, who also loved the movie, as you can see from his comments! There’s a reason film-makers so seldom record musical performances as they are being filmed instead of in a recording studio — they have more control over the sound and can do a more professional job. But you and John are so persuasive I’ll have to give it another try.

  5. The Beatles are amazing, (I even made a website: and I love the idea of this tribute film. It was amazing. My friend introduced it to me, and I really think it looks like a good movie. Is is as amazing as I think it is?

  6. I’m so glad you like the movie and I hope you also see the movies the Beatles made themselves, including “Hard Day’s Night,” “Let it Be,” “Help,” and “Yellow Submarine.” Thanks for writing!

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