Across the Universe offers a new generation an experience of the vitality and sheer exuberance of the Beatles' musical portfolio. Julie Taymor’s flawed but ambitious salute to Beatlemania is a musical celebration of thirty-three of the Beatles' most famous songs and how they reflected the idealism of the sixties. Utilizing her background in puppetry, folklore, mythology, and mime, Taymor brings imagination and creativity to the table with some silly but mostly wonderful results. The film not only integrates the Beatles songs into a heartfelt love story, it also provides a mirror into the political and social turmoil of the decade.
While clips are shown about the fighting and dying in Vietnam, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the racial turmoil in our inner cities, the film primarily offers a heart warming picture of young idealists fighting a corrupt system. You will not find any mention here of drug overdoses, children begging in the street for spare change, or clinics and hospitals clogged with young people carrying sexually transmitted diseases. The songs are the stars and the fact that they are sung by the cast themselves rather than being lip-synched adds immediacy to the experience.
Unfortunately Taymor dumbs down the power of the songs to capture our imagination by providing too literal readings, naming the characters Lucy, Prudence, Max, and Jude and tying them to specific plot points. For example, Prudence enters “through the bathroom window” and provides a lesbian reading of the song “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Max has a sequence with a hammer and “Strawberry Fields Forever” becomes a music video in which falling strawberry bombs explode on bleeding strawberry bodies.
story itself is thin but appealing. Jude (Jim Sturgess), a
dockworker in Britain is enticed by friend Max Carrigan (Joe
Anderson) who has dropped out of college to go with him to
New York. Deserted by his American father (Robert Chohessy)
prior to his birth, he is eager to meet the father he never
saw, now working at Princeton University as a janitor. Jude
and Max move into a Greenwich Village apartment and meet their
landlady Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a night club singer who is reminiscent
of Janis Joplin, JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy) who plays guitar
in the mode of Jimi Hendrix, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio).
While the film gets most of the history right, there is some confusion in linking the counter-culture street people with the student protests, two distinct elements that were mostly at odds with each other throughout the period. Nonetheless, for fans of The Beatles and for a new generation that is eager to learn about the nature of their appeal, Across the Universe is a moving and at times transcendent ride. Joyous and passionate, the film has buckets full of heart and a vibrant energy that invites us to viscerally experience a time when people believed in something larger than themselves and were willing to put their bodies on the line in its support.