Staring at a blue sky for two hours is almost required viewing to settle your mind from the visually lost schizophrenia that is Julie Taymor‘s “Across the Universe”. How else can you undo the damage from being subjected to an exhaustingly lengthy collage of overblown imagery at the hands of an over inflated ego? I can only imagine the horror that must have swept over the executives’ faces after screening this film for the first time. It has been widely publicized that Taymor entered a creative war over the final cut of this film with her producers who wanted to release their own cut of the film. They said the film needed more focus, less experimenting as she hid behind the shield of artistic integrity. Ordinarily, I would never side with any form of censorship but perhaps she should have left her bias in the car and taken a few of the tips that were perhaps being given to her in the best interest of her film. Maybe then, “Across the Universe” could have told a functional story that would have captured some attention, given it some ultimate meaning and made this all-Beatles musical the magical journey it so desperately wanted to be and could have been. Or maybe it would have been worse but I can’t see how.
“Across the Universe” tells the story, and I say that lightly, of a young lad named Jude (Jim Sturgess), who travels across the ocean to find his father. Find him he does in absolutely no time and then he just bounces around from here to there in pursuit of nothing at all. He meets a girl (Evan Rachel Wood) and falls in love; he gets a room in New York City and paints when everybody else is either going to war in Vietnam or protesting it. A bevy of other characters are randomly introduced, bring nothing to the whole (which is paper thin as it is) and then disappear after accomplishing just as much nothing. It is all so aimless; I’m surprised my neck doesn’t hurt more from all the shaking my head did in bewilderment. The style, which can only be described as a refusal to commit to any one style, only makes it more difficult to get taken in. As a viewer, the suspended disbelief necessary to enjoy a musical as one should still requires a firm foundation. Taymor tries to establish a gritty reality with Jude working the docks in Liverpool but the leap to where the music happens, and the magic is supposed to, is always different and seldom seems appropriate. I never thought I would be begging for plausibility in a musical but this was just ridiculous.
While I commend Taymor for incorporating 90% on-location singing into this musical in an attempt to pump a more real quality into the practice, I want to sit her down to talk about some other basic concepts like character, meaning and purpose (concepts she so easily incorporated into her far superior “Frida”). Surely she has seen “Moulin Rouge”. Baz Luhrmann’s film employed the same musical technique to appropriate existing lyrical content (including some by the Beatles) and contextualize it within his story of forbidden lovers. The reason his film worked is because there was a solid story driving it forward and characters that were developed through that story and their songs. “Across the Universe” seems more interested in its high concept usage of the Beatles repertoire that characters seem to be included so that certain songs can be included. It is certainly lovely to see a young high school cheerleader sing a slowed down version of I Wanna Hold your Hand to herself about a fellow cheerleader, just as it is heartbreaking to watch a young boy caught in the streets of the Detroit riots singing Let It Be amidst the violence but both of these potentially powerful moments and strong performances are hollowed out by their complete lack of context. How can you be expected to care when you have no idea why this story is suddenly being told? And then to find out, there was really no significant point to begin with? Without purpose, all you have are a bunch of people singing old songs on screen.
At one point, more specifically when multiple Salma Hayeks in nurse uniforms seductively administered drugs to war patients spinning around a medical ward to Happiness Is a Warm Gun, I found myself wondering just how many Beatles songs were still left to be sung. When a film has no distinct purpose, it also has no clear ending in sight. I was beginning to fear that Taymor might actually turn me off the Beatles with this disaster but fortunately, the Beatles are timeless and genius and something so laughable as “Across the Universe” is not going to diminish their beauty. It’s like bearing witness to a bad karaoke performance of your favorite song; you cringe while it’s happening but once you hear it again for yourself, the mastery that was temporarily taken from it comes back in waves of vibrant colour and splashes of insight that touch your soul. The painful experience is easily forgotten and you ask yourself, across what universe?
Review by Joseph Bélanger