My love affair with Across the Universe began some months ago. It was when I saw the trailer — that was the trigger. Sounds innocent enough. I don't recall what movie it was I saw it with, but I remember feeling this rush, like I was seeing something special. Subsequent viewings of the trailer only increased that "wow" factor. It looked magical, weird, dramatic, and so very relevant all at the same time. I was certain I was setting myself up for huge disappointment. You know, something gets so hyped up in your mind that there is no way it could live up to it? That was how I was beginning to feel.
So I went to the theater, sat down and fearfully I waited for the lights to go down and finally see if my internal hype machine was malfunctioning. When I left the theater some two hours plus later, I found my hype was not all for naught. Across the Universe is daring, bold, and great.
It was only recently that I learned that it was a musical. Seriously. My only knowledge of the film was the trailer. I did not look into its production, or the history that led it to the big screen. I didn't really want to know. It was only by chance that I found out about it being told through the music catalog of The Beatles. Sure, "Hey, Jude" was in the trailer, but for all I knew it was just a segment from the movie. In any case, the film hit all the right notes. It brought together a savvy visual awareness, faith in the narrative, and a general exuberance.
Perhaps it was my familiarity with most of the songs or the trepidation-laced giddiness with which I approached the screening, but I was immediately hooked by that exuberance that just oozed from the screen. There was something about this that was unlike the vast majority of musicals I have seen (albeit a small sampling). I have not seen anything quite like this since Moulin Rouge. Yes, Hairspray was a very good and finely executed musical that had a lively vibrancy to it, but it did not reach the heights of Across the Universe.
Across the Universe takes you on a musical journey through the 1960s, the era of free love and living with no rules, through the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. All of these events are characterized by a series of Beatles songs, sung by characters with Beatles-inspired names. The story is timeless and could just as easily have been set in modern times. It is so relevant it is scary. Despite the similarities to the modern world, I do not sense any particular agenda or political statement. Perhaps that is just me being naive and not wanting to see it, but I don't think so. It is so much more about the characters and the journey that they take as they navigate the choppy waters of the real world as they grow and mature as individuals.
The story follows Jude (Jim Sturgess), a Liverpool native who works in the shipyards. He leaves his job and travels to America in search of his father, who left before he was born. His journey leads him to a friendship with Max (Joe Anderson), a Princeton student. Max drops out and the two travel to New York City, where they share a pad with the Janis Joplin-like Sadie (Dana Fuchs), the Jimi Hendrix-esque JoJo (Martin Luther McKoy), and runaway cheerleader Prudence (T.V. Carpio). Shortly thereafter, they are joined by Lucy, Max's sister and Jude's love interest, as she looks for some excitement before heading off to college.
We follow them as they spread their wings and experiment in art and music, only to have their world interrupted by Vietnam. Max is drafted and sent off to war, while the rest of them go on a journey with Dr. Robert (Bono), receive advice from Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard), all while Max struggles with his wartime duty.
The story is not deep, but it is so well told. From the moment Jude sings part of "Girl" to open the film, I was swept up for the ride. Director Julie Taymor, probably best known for directing the Broadway version of The Lion King, takes the music of The Beatles, psychedelic visuals, and a strong narrative and marries them in a unique visual and aural experience. I have never seen Taymor's work before, but after Across the Universe I am going to have to make a point of it. This is a film that takes chances; that goes out on a limb in the attempt to create a new experience.
The vocal performances are not all great, but none of them are terrible and often bring a new flavor to the song delivered in a context you may not expect. The strongest example of this would be when Prudence sings "I Want to Hold Your Hand," bringing this sense of hopelessness to a seemingly upbeat song.
Across the Universe is a flat out incredible experience. There are a variety of ways you can enjoy it. It is a musical travelogue of the '60s era, it is a romance, it is an adventure, a war film, a comment on the current war effort, the list goes on. It is not going to be a movie for everyone, though everyone should take a shot at it.
Bottom line. I left the theater in a state of sheer joy. Across the Universe is one of the most imaginative films to hit the screen this year. From the story, to the great use of choreographed dance numbers, puppets, computer effects, and practical effects add up to a film which seeks to stretch what can be done with the visual medium. Simply beautiful.