We’ve seen it all before in the movies and various forms of entertainment: Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, the riots, the speeches, the love story. It has been common territory for entertainment. Part of the reason is that it was one of the biggest eras of political mistake making so its the easiest go to when making a point about our current political culture, but it was also one of the biggest artistic renovation periods of American History. This era and the jazz/blues era I would put at the forefront. Also making it an easy choice for creative stomping grounds. We’ve also seen in movies about this era those scenes when the songs beat over the various films images with the meaning they were created to have. But I’ve never seen it done with so much excessive creativity and literalness as I have in Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe”, and that’s the biggest compliment I could pay any movie this year, because with a sharp hand she makes it work, almost all the time anyway.
The music on display here is pretty much the entirety of the The Beatle’s song collection, at least it feels that way at times. Each song sparks interweaving story arches or gives characters’ motivation. The story itself is pretty thin and its at its best when the music connects with the emotional resonance of the events or the characters. In moments like these I experienced great amounts of elation: somewhere between my body shivering or tears rolling down my cheeks from the sheer energy and power of what was happening on screen. I will say none of the songs are sung by The Beatles, but instead are belted and whined by the stars of the film, making this a musical of sorts. But for me it was less of a musical and more a study of the power and importance of music and art and how in times of need and desperation those ideas are necessary and dramatically more important then most anything else when dealing with the events of the world around us and our personal emotions, and as I stated briefly before, I don’t think any other era in American history has touched upon this synergy between society, art personal empathy and apathy as this tragic decade has. So what better era to set it in.
The story becomes as meaningful and dramatic as The Beatles songs being sung allow it to. And while I enjoy some of their earlier pop hits it’s the music that came later, the music tinged with sadness or coolness that allows me to view them as one of the greatest bands and group of artists of all time. Because the first thirty minutes of the film works with more pop-music songs it’s also the least interesting part of the film. Not only that, but the abundance of these songs to explain seems to slow the already too familiar story down. That story is English boy (from Liverpool) named Jude stows away to New York City looking for a better life and to meet his ex-army Father who unknowingly impregnated his Mother while stationed in the UK then disappeared back to the states and has since started his own family. There he meets a friend and then meets his friend’s sister, who he falls in love with. The sister’s name is Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Woods. She is a clean cut all American girl whose boyfriend is proud to be sent to Vietnam. There’s one subplot brought into the film also that is dealt with on occasion but never directly and has little to do with the film except to build to another song, the girl’s name is Prudence, so you can guess the song. And once the song is sung her story ends. Brief, but not too annoying.
It’s not until that sadness enters into the music that it enters into the film and the film in return becomes lofty and enjoyable. Boyfriends are killed, love is found, people are motivated to protest, love is lost and some amazing images are encountered. Against the music all of these stories attain a certain authenticity they may not have had otherwise. And when that happens, the choreography which in the beginning seemed a little stilted and unmotivated becomes jaw-droppingly creative and a necessary part of the story, which as far as choreography goes, its rarely is used to tell the story. Only once have I seen it used to recap the story in “An American in Paris”.
The visuals are beyond impressive and create a sense of wonder and awe inspiring the imagination beyond what one sees. Giving meaning to the imagination. Two of my favorite scenes are “Come Together” and “Strawberry Fields” (which was the emotional apex of the art/society/love story synergy), others were the obvious “Hey, Jude”, the simple but powerful “All You Need is Love”, the trippy “I am the Walrus” and even more trippy “Mr Kite” which to me seemed like a completely unnecessary sequence, but was one of the most interesting as the screen became a paper machete montage of sorts with Eddie Izzard floating around speaking the lyrics.
This film was everything I expected it to be in ways that I didn’t expect and left me hanging in ways that I hoped to be riveted. A beautiful film, with a lot of heart, soul and passion mixed in. My biggest complaint is that they didn’t use “Elanor Rigby”, one of my favorites. I’ve heard they cut ten minutes out of the finished product. Can we hope part of that contains some love for Rigby?