Talking Movies

October 2, 2019

From the Archives: Across the Universe

Another rummage through the pre-Talking Movies archives uncovers Julie Taymor’s under-watched and under-appreciated Beatles musical featuring the under-appreciated Joe Anderson.

Liverpudlian dock worker Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels to Princeton in the 1960s to find his long lost GI father but moves to New York with Max (Joe Anderson) and falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). When Max is sent to Vietnam, Lucy’s political activism tears her away from Jude…

Musicals, like Westerns, seem to be experiencing something of a renaissance. But both genres are nowadays farcically burdened with justifying their conventions and director Julie Taymor never quite establishes whether people are just going to burst into song randomly like in 1950s musicals or in archly contrived scenarios like 2002’s Chicago. Instead she throws both styles together, which works fine for the most part, but this is definitely more Moulin Rouge! than Chicago. Be warned, there’s a good deal of the overt theatricality you’d expect from a director with Godlike status on Broadway. The use of ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ is fantastic as Max is accosted by a poster of Uncle Sam and choreographed sergeant majors at his army medical exam before a visual gag far too good to spoil here. However, this use of CGI and wooden masks presages the utter nonsense that begins when Bono arrives to sing ‘I Am the Walrus’. The use of photographic negative and trippy imagery that takes over proceedings quickly becomes very irritating and makes the running time of the film seem grotesquely overlong.

A simpler early sequence best exemplifies the cleverness with which Taymor approaches the songs. The extremely poppy ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ is transformed into a slow minimalist heartbreaker of a song as lesbian cheerleader Prudence (TV Carpio) serenades the lead cheerleader while footballers tackle each other as a tumbling chorus. If you don’t like this sequence then you will hate this film and most probably punch the person behind you who mutters ‘That’s Awesome!!’ Taymor at her best is able to wring unexpected meaning from the over-familiar songs and brings out the sadness implicit in Lennon and McCartney’s fondness for minor key compositions. At her worst she completely loses the realism of the Jude/Lucy love story and the sly wit in making the songs emerge organically from action, indulging instead in symbolical visual zaniness that plays like a bad 1960s Roger Corman exploitation film.

Jim Sturgess as Jude can sing but he lacks charisma and Evan Rachel Wood is good as Lucy but not good enough to carry him, she should have really have been playing opposite Joe Anderson who is wonderful as the raffish Max. It takes heroic resolve to overlook Taymor’s wayward psychedelia but she does return to the realism of musicals so that the finale has a nice emotional oomph with the end credits a neat pay off for a gag we’ve been waiting for the whole length of the film. No I’m not going to tell you what it is, go see it yourself.

3/5

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