Julie Taymor must have so many weird, crazy ideas in her head that it’s threatening to explode at all times. The filmmaker, set and costume designer, stage director and puppeteer has only made three movies in her career, but each has tackled a monster of Western popular culture (William Shakespeare, Frida Kahlo, The Beatles) in an ambitious, visionary and often messy way. Her latest, Across the Universe, is simultaneously her most audacious and most conventional work. A psychedelic take on the stage trend of the “jukebox musical,” Universe uses more than 30 Beatles songs in service of the rather bland story of young lovers Jude (Sturgess) and Lucy (Wood), set against the turmoil of the 1960s.
Strip away the music and Taymor’s manic visual sense, and what you have is a clichéd tale of the ’60s, complete with war protests, hippie awakenings, drug trips, haunted Vietnam vets and totally groovy outfits and hairstyles. The screenplay by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (from a story developed with Taymor) is about as sophisticated as the 1999 NBC miniseries The ’60s. But while the characters are one-dimensional and the dialogue often wooden, the expressive musical numbers and kaleidoscopic set pieces (especially in the film’s second half) go a long way toward making up for it.
Taymor packs the movie wall-to-wall with music, barely letting the characters rattle off a few lines before breaking into song. If you’d never heard of The Beatles before, you might wonder exactly what about half these songs were doing in the movie, but many of them fit surprisingly well into the story. There are some lovely reinterpretations, most notably “I Want to Hold Your Hand” recast as a melancholy ballad of longing, and “Let It Be” turned into a hymn of mourning. Taymor is also a compositional genius, and seemingly simple images—a line of black umbrellas outside a funeral, a perfectly choreographed sea of pedestrians—pack unexpected power.
One can’t help but wonder, though, if the movie would have been just as good (and possibly just as bad) with original songs rather than Beatles tunes, whose specific cultural associations don’t often enhance the storytelling. At the very least it would have spared the audience from all the winking references to song lyrics, which are tiresome after the first instance. Just as often silly as it is clever, Universe is the work of a filmmaker whose large and wonderful visions feel cramped inside a trite and forgettable little fable.
Across the Universe
Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson
Directed by Julie Taymor