Live-action, animation, puppetry -- set to Beatles tunes


Director Julie Taymor is taking a trip through the stars, but she isn't traveling alone. For her upcoming Sony musical, "Across the Universe," Taymor is once again teaming with her frequent collaborator, composer Elliot Goldenthal -- the pair is best known for 1999's Shakespearean adaptation "Titus" and 2002's Academy Award-winning biopic "Frida." This time around, the goal was to create a $45 million experimental feature that combines live-action, animation and puppetry, all set to the music of the Beatles.

For more than two and a half years, the duo, along with music producer T-Bone Burnett, have been working on the project, which uses Beatles songs as the centerpiece of a unique love story. Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess play young adults torn apart by the turbulent political landscape of the 1960s, but Taymor says it was the notion of upholding the integrity of the world's most beloved pop music -- rather than recreating a specific era -- that proved the most daunting.

"I think it's the most incredible honor and burden," Taymor says. "Everybody rolls their eyes when you say you're going to do a musical with 33 Beatles songs because the big danger is that we've seen all these jukebox catalog musicals. But the big difference is that the Beatles' range in those seven years really went from these wonderful, pure, naive lyrics in their early years to a time of disillusionment of the '60s."

Goldenthal says the key was to remain obsessively true to the original spirit of the songs, which are performed by Wood and Sturgess, comedian Eddie Izzard and U2's Bono, with cameos from Joe Cocker and Salma Hayek.

"(It was) a process of reducing and deconstructing, not overproducing and adding on," Goldenthal explains. "In 'Blackbird,' for example, it was arranged with accordion, mandolin and guitar and a very simple framework, where Evan Rachel Wood could just sing in the simple, radiating way that she does. In 'Mr. Kite' (performed by Izzard), the idea was to set it with a low-tech circus band with tubas, sax, clarinet and accordion."

Taymor says that she and her team carefully selected songs that best fit the film's unique style and narrative. "I think we thought we were going to start with 18 (songs)," she says, adding that the film only has a total of 30 minutes worth of actual dialogue. "What happened was so many songs could fit into the story (that) I really felt if you could tell a story where you don't have dialogue -- why not?"

Of course, Taymor reportedly encountered some tumult of her own in the process of finishing "Universe": Executives at production company Revolution Studios clashed with the director -- allegedly over the film's two-hour-plus running time. Controversy aside, however, "Universe" carries Taymor's unmistakable artistic stamp, and she believes that audiences will respond to the project. "(Politically) the story is unfortunately today," Taymor says. "I say that because it's a love story that falls apart because of the politics of the day. She's an activist, and he's not."

Shot on location in New York City in late 2005, "Universe" is set for release Sept. 28.