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Monday September 17, 2007 1:52 pm

REVIEW:  ‘Across the Universe’

Across the Universe class=

When I first heard the words Julie Taymor, The Beatles and musical linked in the same sentence, I immediately etched the title Across the Universe into my brain.  Without even glimpsing a trailer, I knew I had to see the film.  I was raised on The Fab Four and was curious to see what Taymor, the award-winning director behind the stage production of The Lion King, would do with their library.  After months of waiting, I knew from the minute I heard Jim Sturgess’ haunting vocal on the opener (‘Girl’) that this would be a special event.

The movie centers around a dock worker from Liverpool, England (Jude) who travels to America in the early ‘60s to find the father he never met.  He quickly befriends a rich college dropout (Max) and later falls in love with his younger sister (Lucy).  All three eventually end up in New York where their lives become tied to the anti-war movement.

One can’t help but wonder if the film’s creators were on some drunken binge when they challenged themselves to string these songs together.  Watching the movie was almost like a game; I was always guessing when the next tune would start and anticipated how it would be implemented.  Thankfully, the inventive vocal arrangements never ceased to amaze me.  And if I wasn’t focusing on the songs, I was busy with song titles.  Trying to attach the characters’ names (Jude, Lucy, Max, Sadie, Jojo, Prudence, Rita, etc.) to their origins kept my brain working in overtime.

Writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais masterfully wove thirty-three different Beatles songs into their screenplay—achieving what I like to consider a ‘rock opera-fied version of Forrest Gump’.  Both movies, set during the Vietnam War era, relied heavily on their large music catalogue as a storytelling device.  (Of course, in Universe, the actors sing).  Clement and La Frenais were also challenged of having their tunes come first.  This forced them to bridge previously unrelated songs to create their story.  And while their soundtrack would come with a built-in fan base, it would also anger die-hard purists.

Highlighting the songs and creative screenplay was the astounding imagery; the movie is an absolute feast for the eyes.  The visual interpretations of the lyrics gave me a new appreciation for the songs I already loved.  For example, when Max dreams about being sent into war, the movie has Uncle Sam singing ’I Want You’ to the draftee.  We then fast forward to a group of recruits being shipped off with the Statue of Liberty on their shoulders during ’She’s So Heavy’.  Anyone familiar with Julie Taymor’s work could easily spot her creative touches stamped throughout this film—from the large puppets to the unusual masks and costumes.  Granted, some scenes – like the Eddie Izzard tent segment – were a bit of a stretch.  But whether or not you approve of Taymor’s direction, there’s no denying this woman’s imagination has no bounds. 

It could be argued that the script takes a backseat to the songs (and I can’t necessarily argue with that)—but that’s not to say there isn’t a storyline there at all.  The movie addresses those who were proud to serve their country (Daniel); those who wanted to avoid the war at all cost (Max); those who felt they had to stand up and do something (Lucy); and those who weren’t really sure where they stood in the cause (Jude).  Several weaker subplots – like the romance between bandmates Sadie and Jojo – made the movie longer than it probably should have been.  Their characters essentially served as vehicles for more Beatles songs.  But you should take note:  This movie is filled with such

incredible vocal talent

—I was willing to sit an extra 20 minutes or so just to watch these minor characters.  Dana Fuchs (Sadie)—who looks like a a cross between Joss Stone and Nikka Costa and sounds just like Janis Joplin—is an amazing find. 

But I don’t mean to discount the other singers of Across .  Given her current high-profile romance with rocker Marilyn Manson, it’s almost too easy to forget how talented an actress Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) has become.  Now she can add confidently add ‘singer’ to her resume.  As for Jim Sturgess (Jude)—wow.  I don’t know that his role could have been more perfectly cast.  Interestingly, his touching voice reminded me of Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge.

And here’s interesting Trivia Fact for you:  most of the songs were sung live.  In other words, the actors were not lip-synching to a pre-recorded track nor were they dubbed over later.  Impressive.

Trivia Fact #2:  That really is Bono you see in the film.  (Oprah recently said she thought he was a look-alike).  Bono does a nice job in his first acting bit and strangely enough reminded me of a mellowed-out Robin Williams.  Other cameos include Eddie Izzard (as mentioned earlier), Joe Cocker and Salma Hayek (Taymor’s subject in Frida).

I’d like to think the success of Hairspray helped pave the way for other musicals this year.  According to Julie Taymor, Sir Paul McCartney was caught singing under his breath during a private screening of the film.  If you can give Across the Universe a chance,  you’ll be doing the exact same thing too. 

Director:  Julie Taymor
Starring:  Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther and T.V. Carpio
Running Time:  131 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (for drug content, nudity, sexuality, violence and language)

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