Across the Universe
Bottom Line: Julie Taymor reinterprets the Beatles, with mixed results.Julie Taymor's visual gifts are very much in evidence in "Across the Universe," an ambitious, only partly successful attempt to reinvigorate the musical genre.
Taymor previously worked her magic onstage with "The Lion King" and onscreen with "Frida." As a re-creation of the tumultuous '60s era, her new film is another triumph of design. Imaginatively shot and choreographed, it also presents a frequently exciting interpretation of more than 30 Beatles songs, performed by an attractive cast of young actors.
Yet this lavish production, which also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, is finally unsatisfying because it somehow misses the essence of the Beatles and of the most memorable movie musicals.
Director Stanley Donen once said that the best reason for characters to burst into song and dance was to express joy. Of course, not all musicals are joyous affairs; there have been tragedies like "West Side Story" and sentimental melodramas like "The Sound of Music." Still, it could be argued that many of the greatest moments in movie musical history -- like Gene Kelly's performance of the title number in Donen and Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" -- convey pure exuberance. And of course what made the Beatles' own movies "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!" so captivating was their spirit of playfulness and joy.
That's the crucial quality absent from "Universe." Taymor, working with veteran screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais ("The Commitments"), has invented a simple story that allows her to utilize many of the best-known Beatles songs. She follows two main characters -- a well-bred girl named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and a working-class kid from Liverpool, Jude (newcomer Jim Sturgess) -- who fall in love against a backdrop of counterculture shenanigans and anti-war protests.
The Beatles acknowledged the tensions of the period in some of their music, and Taymor has highlighted the grim mood of songs like "Revolution" as well as the more surreal, psychedelically flavored songs such as "I Am the Walrus" and "Strawberry Fields Forever." But she has completely ignored the sly wit found in such songs as "Penny Lane," "Paperback Writer" or "When I'm 64."
The cast is engaging. Wood brings tenderness and fire to her performance, and Sturgess demonstrates unmistakable charisma. Some of the secondary characters aren't terribly well developed, but they are skillfully played by Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther McCoy. Fuchs is doing a variation on Janis Joplin, and she has the powerful voice to justify the comparison.
Bigger musical stars turn up in cameos. Joe Cocker plays three characters in a brilliant rendition of "Come Together," and he momentarily supplies the gleeful wit that the film desperately needs. Bono's performance of "I Am the Walrus" is another high point.
Mark Friedberg's production design and Albert Wolsky's costumes should be remembered during awards season. Francoise Bonnot's editing also deserves high praise. The intercutting during "Hold Me Tight," "With a Little Help From My Friends" and "Let It Be" gives these numbers a breathless cinematic rhythm. The arrangement of the songs also is top-notch. But the romantic finale seems pat rather than emotionally devastating.
Despite all the inventive work, the film never achieves the soaring sense of bliss that would place it in the pantheon of movie musicals.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
Revolution Studios, A Matthew Gross/Team Todd production
Director: Julie Taymor
Screenwriters: Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais
Story: Julie Taymor, Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais
Producers: Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd, Matthew Gross
Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel
Production designer: Mark Friedberg
Music: Elliot Goldenthal
Songs produced by: T Bone Burnett, Elliot Goldenthal, Teese Gohl
Co-producers: Richard Baratta, Ben Haber
Costume designer: Albert Wolsky
Editor: Francoise Bonnot
Choreographer: Daniel Ezralow
Lucy: Evan Rachel Wood
Jude: Jim Sturgess
Max Carrigan: Joe Anderson
Sadie: Dana Fuchs
Jo-Jo: Martin Luther McCoy
Prudence: T.V. Carpio
Jude's Mother: Angela Mounsey
Jude's Father: Robert Clohessy
Lucy's Father: Dylan Baker
Lucy's Mother: Linda Emond
Uncle Teddy: Bill Irwin
Bum/Pimp/Mad Hippie: Joe Cocker
Dr. Robert: Bono
Mr. Kite: Eddie Izzard
Singing Nurse: Salma Hayek
Running time -- 133 minutes
MPAA rating PG-13