A bit vulgar….probably not work safe, but it made me laugh out loud (not LQTM). It’s all too real:
And the sequel, which is a little more over the top but still pretty dang funny, is over here.
When I was about fourteen, I used to take my Beatle records and play the songs out of order, crafting a little story in my head to go along with them. It turns out I was a little ahead of my time, as this is essentially what Julie Taymor has done in Across the Universe, except she is working with the entire canon, while I did it one record at a time (Rubber Soul works particularly well, as they are all relationship songs and some are quite nasty). I think, though, that even at that age I could have come up with a better story than Taymor and her writers have.
I had to see this film, despite some pummeling reviews. They have ranged from Roger Ebert’s four stars to Robert Wilonsky saying it was “unreleasable.” As usual with love-it-or-hate it films, I’m somewhere in the middle. I liked the beginning, as we are introduced to the lead characters: Jude, a working class stiff from Liverpool, and Lucy, a high-school girl of means in the States. I heard Taymor on the radio talking about the Beatles’ early popularity with teenage girls, and attributing it to the fact that their early songs were rich with the attitudes of young girls–songs like “Hold Me Tight,” “It Won’t Be Long,” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” express a feminine sentiment, and in Taymor’s film they are sung by girls. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is sung by Prudence, a young Asian girl, as a plaintive lesbian lament from one cheerleader to another, and it works quite well.
Jude comes to America to find his father, and finds him working as a janitor at Princeton (it was a bit strange to be watching this film just a block or two from where it was filmed). He meets up with the student Max, Lucy’s dissolute brother, who invites him back to his house for Thanksgiving. Max drops out of school and the two friends move to New York and become part of the hippie scene. Here is where the movie starts to turn, much like old milk. Instead of characters, we start to meet types–Sadie, a bluesy singer (see Joplin, Janis) and JoJo, an angry black guitarist who favors headbands (see Hendrix, Jimi). Prudence shows up (in one of the many winks at the audience, she literally comes in through the bathroom window) and then Lucy, who falls in love with Jude even as she’s becoming politically radical.
I can’t think of one good movie that captures the counterculture movement of the sixties. There have been some noble attempts, like Milos Forman’s Hair, which this film resembles in quite a few ways. Forman also took a bunch of songs and tried to fashion a plot out of it and used a number of stylistic tricks along the way. Taymor, who’s past with puppetry and theater is evident in her visual style, certainly keeps things interesting along the way. Some of the musical numbers are deliciously captivating, such as Jude singing “I’ve Just Seen a Face” to express his crush on Lucy while at a bowling alley, or Max getting inducted to the Army by a phalanx of jut-chinned soldiers to the spooky tune of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
But there are moments that are cringe-worthy. The naming of the characters is juvenile; when your main character is Jude it’s only a matter of time before we hear the music swell and the cast breaks into “Na Na Nas,” and the way they shoehorn “Dear Prudence” in is particularly awkward. The story, which tries to pack in too much (everything from the Detroit riots to Vietnam to the siege at Columbia to the Weathermen) clunks rather than hums. Some storylines, like Jim’s father and Max’s relationship with his parents, are just dropped. Sadie and JoJo have a romance going on, I think, but it wasn’t fleshed out. There is the obligatory period of drug experimentation, with Bono, looking disconcertingly like Robin Williams, singing “I Am the Walrus” and Eddie Izzard doing “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” in a scene that might be trouble for epileptics.
The cast is generally good. Jim Sturgess is Jude, and he looks like quite a bit like Paul McCartney, circa Rubber Soul. Evan Rachel Wood as Lucy looks right, virginal and dewy (although contemplating her off-screen relationship with Marilyn Manson would dissipate the virginal part). Dana Fuchs is Sadie, as I wasn’t surprised to read that she’s played Janis Joplin in a stage show. Joe Cocker turns up as a homeless man singing “Come Together.”
Your reaction to this film will probably be based on how you feel about The Beatles. Certainly their career arc does mirror the sixties, from the innocent feel-good times that carries over from the sock-hop era to the dark angry days of Vietnam, drugs, and civil rights, so this whole concept makes sense. If you love Beatles music, you may enjoy seeing the songs reinterpreted and performed by an engaging young cast. Or, you may be a purist and stew in your chair seeing these songs used in an amateurish story that says nothing about the sixties that hasn’t been said a million times before. If you don’t like the Beatles, or are indifferent, you may find this film excruciatingly precious and a waste of time.