Across the Universe: Reinventing Some of The Beatles’ Best
By
J. Gordon
2/23/2008 11:40:23 PM

Let’s get a few things clear: When getting the bargain pairing of the Across the Universe DVD with the soundtrack CD, it is a mistake to listen to the CD first. Great songs, sure. Talent, yeah. But most cover songs—at least those done fairly true to the original form—leave the listener just wishing to hear the original. There is not yet a scene in one’s mind to support this new voice. And so, four or five songs into the CD, this reviewer hit ‘eject’ and put the movie on the shelf for a few weeks, right beside her enthusiasm.

It is a mistake, just because one is the type of person who tends not to like a lot of musicals, to assume that they will dislike Across the Universe because it fits in that genre. It’s a mistake to assume that, just because the first half hour of the aforementioned CD is bubblegum-sweet and prom-queen tame, that the rest of the flick is the same.

Actually, that tameness is just the beginning of the brilliance: Across the Universe is a story formed of Beatles’ tunes that tells the story of a small group of friends and the larger story of the 1960s. The amazingly creative Director Julie Taymor explains in the companion CD, “The songs are forwarding the action; they’re not just laid on top.” But it’s even a little bit more than that. Much like the movie Magnolia was built from and around the artist Aimee Mann’s songs, Across the Universe takes it a step further, with even more music than actual spoken lines. This isn’t the traditional song-scene-song set-up of musicals. In Across the Universe, the characters are actually living through (and only because of) each song, and the songs are movingly reinvented; taking on new and greater meanings than anyone, including the Beatles, could ever have originally imagined.

But that’s the least of it. As the 60s evolved away from Father Knows Best sweetness and Cavern Club ruffians across the pond (the movie is full of these parallels, contrasting Civil Rights riots and the Vietnam War, black kids killed in the street and young men killed in Vietnam), it also moves into psychedelia, hard rock, drugs and outright revolution. At times, the movie hits a few current raw nerves, as it draws even more parallels to our country, government and war today. It’s impossible to watch a folded flag on a soldier’s coffin, for instance, and not think of our troops in Iraq.

Across the Universe is a bizarre, smart, beautiful, emotionally moving, politically challenging and a hallucinatory trip all rolled into one. Using 33 of the Beatles’ songs, Director Julie Taymor has taken a group of relatively unknown great talents (although Evan Rachel Wood as “Lucy” and the equally beautiful Jim Sturgess as “Jude” are primed to be the Next Big Things), and mixed them into the most ambitious, original, surreal and visually compelling movie to come around in many, many years. Did I mention the singing? Did I mention the dancing (which doesn’t feel like dancing, somehow)? The talent of the core group is phenomenal, with the best of the best scenes going to “Max,” (Joe Anderson) a precocious Princeton dropout who is drafted into the war. His scene walking into the draft hall, with giant Uncle Sam posters singing, “I Want You,” going through the military’s dehumanization process, and then tromping with his men, stripped almost naked, over Vietnamese jungles carrying the weight of the Statue of Liberty “(She’s so Heavy)” is such an awe-inspiring scene and worth the price of the DVD alone.

Not to be forgotten is the super-cool landlady/rocker character, “Sadie,” (Dana Fuchs) who is a sexier version of Janis Joplin right down to the psychedelic Porsche parked out front, and the Hendrix electric-bluesyness of her boyfriend “JoJo” (Martin Luther), whose voice is nothing to sneeze at, either. There are also sly references to other famous personalities of the time: Abbie Hoffmann, the Weathermen, Café Wha? becomes Café Huh?...and more. It has a few corny moments, such as when Prudence appears, wet and bedraggled, in the gang’s East Side apartment. “Where’d she come from?” Sadie asks. “She came in through the bathroom window,” says Jude. Groan. But that’s, at least, forgivable.

There are also a few killer cameos and smaller roles: Bono plays “Dr. Robert,” a Ken Kesey-ish character on a psychedelic (there’s that word again. But is there one better?) bus called “Beyond” instead of the Merry Prankster’s “Further”, Eddie Izzard (“Mr. Kite”), and Salma Hayek (who plays a host of dancing delirium nurses in Max’s hospital scene for “Happiness is a Warm Gun”).

The accompanying DVD has some fun interviews, as well as a fascinating look at the production, idea development, and writing of this incredible work of art. This is one to own, for sure.

Now, where did I put that CD?

 

Copyright ©2021 Night Times, LLC. All rights reserved.