Program Notes: Across the Universe (2007)
Nevertheless, the music of history’s greatest rock band is here, there, and everywhere in Julie Taymor’s ambitious 1960’s tableau of love, loss, and redemption.
Folks, this is a Baby Boomer dream made flesh. Or at least celluloid.
Here fresh-faced, clear-voiced, and perfectly-cast singing actors channel nearly 30 Beatles songs. It all sounds great, from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Let It Be.”
Beyond the familiar glories of the Beatles songbook, Across the Universe delivers the emotional/dramatic goods. More than a clever exercise in matching up classic tunes with characters and plot points, the film is a soul-searching and sometimes soul-searing story about young people caught up in a turbulent world of amazing possibility and overpowering unrest.
It perfectly taps into a generation’s reefer-fumigated memories.
Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a cheerless Liverpool dock worker who takes off to America to track down his father. Jude, you see, is a war baby born of a Brit lady and a Yank serviceman.
Once in the U.S. he meets Max (Joe Anderson), an aimless upper-middle-class college student who takes the wide-eyed Jude under his cynical yet fun-loving wing. Soon they’re sharing a New York tenement with other young folk all named after characters in Beatles songs: (Dear) Prudence, Jo-Jo, (Sexy) Sadie ... you get the picture.
All this might be a bit too cute for comfort, except that Taymor (who adapted The Lion King for Broadway) is a genuine cinematic visionary and fills the screen with eye-popping, mind-blowing marvels.
The songs are been so cleverly woven into the fabric of the tale that often when you hear the first notes of a tune you laugh out loud at the sheer rightness of it all.
When Jude is introduced to Max’s stimulating sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), it’s love at first sight. Jude expresses his joy by singing “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
Hanging over the budding romance, though, is a growing maelstrom of social and political disorder stirred by the Vietnam War and civil rights turmoil. Not to mention experiments with psychedelic drugs and the ever-inflammatory generation gap.
Who will survive? Who will succumb?
Some of this is predictable, like the use of “With a Little Help from My Friends” to orchestrate Max and Jude’s hearty partying.
Some of it is disconcerting. A chilling version of “I Want You” (an eerie, downbeat ode to obsession even in its original incarnation) is here sung by an animated Uncle Sam who leans out from a recruiting poster to taunt Max when he shows up for his draft physical.
Plus, the film is bursting with celebrity cameos. Among the best are Joe Cocker, who adopts the personas of a pimp, a hippie, and a homeless person singing “Come Together,” and Bono as an acid-trip guru doing “I Am the Walrus.”
Coo Coo Ka-Joob.
Oh, well, they can’t all be home runs.
Across the Universe arguably loses some of its narrative drive near the end, but the Beatles songs just keep coming.
And you know that can’t be bad.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.