If the Beatles can be considered a force that redefined the genre of rock ‘n’ roll, it should now be said that Julie Taymor’s film “Across the Universe,” an unrelentingly lush visual exploration of the Fab Four’s repertoire, does much of the same for the American musical.
The film’s plot, though at times skating on the thin ice of banality, nonetheless provides a solid foundation for Taymor to push the visual envelope. Her images of colorful choreography and splattered psychedelia make it immediately clear that appreciating the film should be more like peering through a kaleidoscope than meticulously fiddling with a microscope’s cumbersome knobs.
Once this is understood, following the protagonist Jude (Jim Sturgess) on his journey through the love, loss and inevitable artistic freak-outs of 1960s America becomes more of a treat than a chore. Jude, who leaves Liverpool in search of his estranged father, eventually meets Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) through her brother, Max (Joe Anderson). When the two begin to discover their feelings for each other, Taymor’s giddy, neon-bathed take on “I’ve Just Seen a Face” artfully paints a picture of the 1960s undergoing a transformation, one in which drippy acid trips begin to stain the carefully maintained hems of prim poodle skirts.
This picture of a decade at odds with itself continues later when Jude and Max move to New York City. Walking through the streets of the Big Apple, they are greeted by the pseudo-militaristic dance formations of identical businessmen in the daytime and at night by the slinky allure of a burgeoning sexual revolution. That both of these dance routines unfold within one rendition of “Come Together” is as ironic as it is illustrative of the time’s polarized ideals.
The film’s most dazzling number is easily Taymor’s take on the haunting “Abbey Road” classic “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which provides a musical backdrop for Max’s trip to the draft office. As he attempts escape, two identically demonic portraits of Uncle Sam come to life, restrain him (all the while forcefully singing the song’s title line) and push him into a frighteningly mechanistic war machine in which appearance and personality are standardized and hand-to-hand combat becomes a sort of eerie dance. The goose bumps that this sequence will inevitably induce along audiences’ arms and neck are from a combination of fear and awe — they are the kind one might experience while looking at the orange shimmer of a blossoming nuclear blast.
“Across the Universe” does flatline at points: U2’s Bono makes a guest appearance to perform a predictably tripped-out version of “I Am the Walrus” that at times looks suspiciously like a high school D.A.R.E. video, and Jude’s version of “All You Need Is Love” near the film’s end couldn’t be campier if it featured a tent and bonfire. However, Taymor’s virtuosity more than buttresses any weaknesses, once again reinforcing the idea that the film should be viewed with an eye toward exploration. This being accepted, “Across the Universe” can truly take flight and perhaps even surpass “Yellow Submarine” in creativity and ingenuity.
“Across the Universe” was written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and directed by Julie Taymor.
It received three out of four stars.