Across the Universe begs an essential question: Do filmmakers need to keep up? Would the visionary stage director Julie Taymor have embarked on this folly a decades-late adaptation of songs by the Beatles as pretext for a story about social unrest if she had seen Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto, a glorious personal interpretation of Irish history through pop music? Or would she have bothered shoehorning the Beatles catalog into an operatic Iraq War allegory if she had seen Ken Russell's wildly inventive Tommy, the definitive interpretation of a classic work of rock music?
As Across the Universe sprawls on for over two hours, becoming a typical Taymor panorama, its use of the Beatles' music never improves on the accomplishments of those terrific pop films, nor does it seem particularly personal. One's expectations sink at the elbow-nudging cuteness of characters with Beatles song names: Jude (Jim Sturgess), a British scamp who travels to the U.S. to find his American father; Max (Joe Anderson), the Ivy Leaguer who becomes Jude's best friend; Max's sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), the blonde Jude falls in love with; and the multiracial friends they all find in the big city: Prudence (T.V. Carpio), Sadie (Dana Fuchs), JoJo (Martin Luther). Taymor has put the cast of Rent in a time machine gone backward; the music is better, but it's used tendentiously.
Taymor's characters awaken from the proverbial deep sleep of the 1950s another pop culture fallacy she hasn't thought through. (Did Little Richard, Rosa Parks, or J.D. Salinger inspire no one?) Using her characters' star-crossed adventures, Taymor charts the social tumult of the civil rights movement, women's rights, student protests, gay rights, drugs, and Vietnam as if topicality was what made the Beatles matter. Yet every musical number is wrong-headed: "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as a lesbian's lament for a straight high school cheerleader! "Let It Be" as a funeral oratory sung by a big-breasted black woman for a child killed in a race riot! Nothing in Across the Universe works so well as Wes Anderson's majestic "Hey Jude" overture for the broken-family melodrama The Royal Tenenbaums. But maybe Taymor hasn't seen that, either.
In one of the oddest conceptual blunders since Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge, Taymor has Jude explain that he's from Liverpool and no one bats an eye. For most of the world for the past 40 years, Liverpool has meant the Beatles. But Taymor sets her story in a universe without Beatles. The characters have no awareness that their changing world and attitudes were enabled by real-life examples or an artistic vanguard. To use Beatles songs without acknowledging that they are inextricably part of that era's consciousness can only evoke the period superficially. It's not history (Forrest Gump offered a more perceptive reading of U.S. history), it's just branding with marketable icons.
As Taymor's Jude, Jim Sturgess looks like a baby-faced Paul McCartney but speaks bitterly, like the mythified John Lennon. He misrepresents how the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team complemented, harmonized, and perfectly contrasted with each other (most spectacularly in the intertwined anxiety, mundaneness, and awe of "A Day in the Life."). But Sturgess's Jude is a fatuous one-man smash-up. He sings "Hey Jude" as if it were Rocky's "Gonna Fly Now." This oversimplification of the Beatles exposes Taymor's art as pretense.
That wasn't the case with Taymor's film debut, Titus. Among the most memorable Shakespeare movies, Titus was charged with imagery worthy of both the writing and the screen. Taymor's fondness for symbols (masks and circus pageantry) was combined with a love for real-world, outdoor scale, successfully blending period motifs with timelessness. Music video directors have been doing just that for years, but now that Taymor finally goes pop, her staging and intentions are embarrassingly second-rate.
It's painfully obvious that Taymor's big idea was to parallel '60s political tumult with contemporary dissatisfaction. Nostalgic for the days of revolution, Taymor hijacks the Beatles and reduces them to topical art. Her single successful image is a draft board sequence where conscriptees carry the Statue of Liberty on their backs while singing "She's So Heavy," slogging toward a comment on the Iraq war. Still, Taymor's oddly interpreted numbers forfeit the songs' integrity as unique artistic expressions. She sacrifices the Beatles' art in favor of facile "significance."
Neil Jordan, Ken Russell, and Wes Anderson made movies that expressed how pop inspired them, but Taymor has expended her considerable talent on a dull artifact. Across the Universe feels like something entombed on Broadway, made to amuse bored tourists while grasping after Importance. It's an anomalous musical epic: a pop movie without the excitement of pop.
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