Across the Universe [Retro Review]

“Man, music is the only thing that makes sense anymore. Play it loud enough, it keeps the demons at bay.”

The Scoop: 2007 PG-13, Directed by Julie Taymor and starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess  and Martin Luther

Tagline: All you need is love.

Summary Capsule: British dock worker finds love, drugs, sex and Eddie Izzard, all to the music of some little known boy-band from Liverpool.

Mike’s Rating: What would you do if I wrote out a review? Would you stand up and walk out on me?

Mike’s Review: A long time ago, circa 1978, someone decided to make a film based on a Beatles album. Someone else greenlighted it. For some inexplicable reason, the Beegees were cast despite all of the original Beatles still being alive. The film was called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (based on the album of the same name). The idea was to put together a story using the lyrics and music of one of the most loved bands of all time. It was a disaster. Right up there with the legendary debacles of Howard the Duck, Ishtar, Waterworld and Batman and Robin.

In retrospect it’s not exactly a shock that it bombed, but at the time it actually came as a surprise. Help, A Hard Day’s Night, and Yellow Submarine were all box office hits, Beatlemania was still going strong (albeit waning ever so slightly), and the BeeGees were the “it” group of the moment. So how did it all go so wrong? What it comes down to is this: the concept had so much potential that the creators thought that the concept alone would carry a whole feature. So they didn’t bother with things like “plot” or “decent direction”. So the movie failed. The unfortunate side effect to this was that it took nearly 30 years for this admittedly good premise, a story centering around and partially told by Beatles songs, to be given a decent treatment on screen. Luckily for us, somebody finally got around to doing it right.

Jude is a poor dock worker who gets work on a steamer and then jumps ship in America to meet his estranged father. His search leads him to Princeton where he finds his father works as the janitor, (though not the genius “Will Hunting” kind or hilariously insane “Scrubs” version). While bunking on campus he meets Max, a student who’s pretty wild and more than a little restless with his ivy league existence. The two head to Max’s home for Thanksgiving and Jude meets Max’s sister Lucy who he is immediately attracted to, despite her being reeeeeally hung up on her boyfriend who’s just been shipped off to boot camp (Worry not, reader, he conveniently dies in ‘Nam to make room for the lovebirds). Max announces he’s dropping out, and absconds with Jude to New York. The two get an apartment in swinging Grenwich Vilage where, playing softly in the background are the stories of Sadie, the landlord who moonlights as a Janice Joplin-like rock singer, Prudence, a sexually confused runaway, and Jojo, a guitar player coming to New York to find his big break, and who ends up finding Sadie. Jude and Lucy fall in love early on, but all is not flowers and sunshine (or at least not after they come down from the acid trip). The lovers get derailed when Max gets drafted into Vietnam, and Lucy gets caught up in protesting the injustice of it all with a bunch of other peaceniks, much to the chagrin of Jude, who’s getting more and more pushed to the back burner. Can love survive in the ever-turbulent 60’s? Well you know what John and Paul said: “Love is all you need”.

First thing that comes to mind concerning Across the Universe is that’s it’s really pretty. The visual effects, particularly some of the more psychedelic sequences are great, but the even when the movie settles down into a coherent narrative and just decides to tell the story a little bit, the cinematography is gorgeous. Julie Taymor’s skills from her background as a Broadway writer and director on shows like “The Lion King” are on full display here, and it’s great. For fans of the Fab Four this movie is great fun, not only for the Beatle’s songs themselves, but also the myriad of references to them, (makes or a great drinking game). The movies takes the best parts of a Baz Lurhman red curtain film, mixed with mind trip movies like Pink Floyd’s The Wall without going too over the top like Baz likes to do, or making the metaphorical imagery too incomprehensible, (though I’m not sure what the masked naked painted Asian girls falling into the water was all about, but I went with it). The cast is great, with special nods to Sturgess’s performance as Jude, and Anderson’s supporting role as Max. Wood portrays Lucy with a combination of optimistic naivete’, followed by a conflagration of righteous anger when she finds she may lose her brother in the same way she lost her first love. The fact that she pulls this off beautifully will not be a surprise to anyone who saw her performance in Thirteen. As an added bonus, the entire cast as a whole have some great pipes. Seriously, these people can freakin’ sing! Sturgess especially at times seems to be channeling Paul McCartney. They’re so good in fact that you don’t find yourself dwelling on how the original artists totally did it better. Considering just how many songs have been put into the soundtrack it’s saying quite a bit that there’s no weak points musically.

Now for the gripes: The plot is not quite as dark as it would like to be, and as a result comes off as a bit too light. The scenes of Max in Vietnam make up for maybe 30 seconds of the film, so we don’t really have too much reason to commiserate with his shell shock later in the movie. The storyline with Prudence was also completely incidental and ultimately disposable. The relationship between Jojo and Sadie does slightly better, but in the long run the movie doesn’t give us much reason reason to care about anybody other than the two leads. This doesn’t really hurt the movie, I just would’ve liked to have gotten into the supporting cast a little more. I would have liked a DVD with a gaggle of deleted scenes filling in some of the gaps.

As a grouping of many different genres, this movie screams “cult” in all the best ways. The songs are all given a bit of a modern spin, which you’d think would take away from them, but oddly enough Taymor makes it work, combining the music, the imagery, the choreography and the performances into something a little transcendent. This exaggerated world of the 60’s might never have really existed, but it’s awesome to experience.

After a series of mishaps, all their weaves were accidentally sewn together.

Intermission!

  • That mole on Prudence’s lip is reeeally distracting.
  • The contrasting funerals to the tune of Let it Be.
  • A bar, a brawl, a brothel or…. bowling. Awesome alliteration.
  • You WILL fall in love with Evan Rachel Wood when she breaks into “If I Fell”.
  • The army recruits carrying the Statue of Liberty across a miniature Vietnam to the tune of “She’s So Heavy”.
  • So Jude’s dad couldn’t take a blood test?
  • That’s Joe Cocker singing ” Come together” as Jojo comes to New York
  • Eddie Izzard! YAY!
  • Bono?! eh….
  • Salma Hayek as the nurse(s). She previously starred in director Julie Taymor’s biopic, Frida.
  • Every character is named from the title or lyrics of a Beatles song:
    • Lucy – “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
    • Jude – “Hey Jude”
    • Max – “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”
    • Sadie – “Sexy Sadie”
    • Jojo – “Get Back”
    • Prudence – “Dear Prudence”
    • Dr. Robert – “Doctor Robert”
    • Mr. Kite – “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”
    • Molly (Jude’s English girlfriend) – “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”
  • Other song references include:
    • The shipyard clerk tells Jude when he was younger he said “When I’m 64 I’ll be out of here.” It’s a reference to the song “When I’m Sixty-four”.
    • When Prudence first appears at the apartment, it’s a reference to the song “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”.
    • An instrumental version of ‘A Day in the Life’ playing as Jude reads the paper, specifically the line “I read the news today, oh boy.”
    • When Max and Jude first see their apartment, Sadie comments that Max seems harmless, but could have murdered his granny with a hammer, a reference to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
    • The people in blue during the Mr. Kite sequence resemble Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine.
  • When Jude takes inspiration from the bowl of strawberries, he creates a Jackson Pollock-styled “splatter” painting. This seemingly alludes to original Beatles’ bassist Stuart Sutcliffe who was a painter in the Jackson Pollock style. His life (and death) was depicted in the movie Backbeat.
  • In the middle of “With A Little Help from My Friends”, the music changes to a cover version by Joe Cocker (you know, the one from The Wonder Years). Cocker makes a cameo appearance in the film.
  • Release prints were delivered to some theaters with the fake title “Love and Freedom”

Groovy Quotes:

Jude: I’m from Liverpool
Jude’s Father: (unaware he’s talking to his son) Really. I was stationed there. I had some good times.
Jude: Yeah, I know.

Max: So, where’s that accent from?
Jude: Same place as me.

Hippie #1: You’ve got options, man.
Max: Yeah, jail or Canada and they both suck.
Hippie #1: Montreal is cool.
Max: They speak French there.
Hippie #2: So learn French. Learn French or die.

Sadie: You got a good memory for faces?
Max: Yeah, I think so. Why?
Sadie: There’s no mirror in your bathroom.

Jude: Where’d you come from?
Prudence: Nowhere.
Jude: And before nowhere?
Prudence: Ohio.

Jude: So when do that lot start throwin’ plates at each other?
Lucy: Dessert.

Sadie: (pointing to her room) That’s me. Out of bounds.

Max: She’s got a boyfriend you know.
Jude: That’s ok, I’ve got a girlfriend.

Jude: What are you going to do if you don’t go back to college?
Max: What any irresponsible, unmotivated, drop-out would do. Go to New York, like tonight.

Mr. Kite: Just tune in, turn on, drop out, drop in, switch off, switch on and explode.

Army Sergeant: Is there any reason you shouldn’t serve in the United States Army?
Max: I’m a cross-dressing homosexual pacifist with a spot on my lung.
Army Sergeant: Just as long as you don’t have flat feet…

JoJo: Man, music is the only thing that makes sense anymore. Play it loud enough, it keeps the demons at bay.

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4 Comments

  1. Pingback: Casting Neverwhere: The Movie « Mutant Reviewers From Hell

  2. I actually liked this movie up to one certain point. Max is the pampered, Ivy- League rich boy. Max burns his draft card and then drops out of school. Max gets drafted into the military. The dance number representing Max being “forced” into basic training is a bunch of drones in identical rubber masks and fatigues doing a dance number that involves drill movements and saluting. Apparently,everyone in the military is a faceless drone, got it. That’s when I shut the movie off. I’m sure it was a great movie, Some brilliant actors were cast, and they played their roles to the nth degree. The idea that I spent 8 years of my life being a faceless drone kind of irked me a little bit. Just saying.

  3. Pingback: Mamma Mia! | Mutant Reviewers

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