Ever since Broadway producers figured out that nostalgia starved baby boomers would pay big bucks to see the songs of their youth reinterpreted for their old age, shows based on rock and pop songs have sprung up with the frequency of grey hairs on Grace Slick’s head.
We Will Rock You stitches together Queen songs, Jersey Boys is the story of The Four Seasons, illustrated with the band’s top forty hits while Movin’ Out is the best of Billy Joel with dancers and an orchestra. The latest classic rock catalogue to be pillaged is one of the most sacred of all—The Beatles. Taking her lead from Broadway, director Julie Taymor takes us on a Magical Mystery Tour of the tumultuous late 1960s with a soundtrack by Lennon and McCartney in the new film Across the Universe. No actual Beatles were harmed in the making of this story, but I imagine Beatles’ purists will feel hard done by.
Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (the amazing Evan Rachel Wood) are from different worlds. He’s a dock worker in Liverpool who travels to America to find his estranged father; she’s a rich kid from Ohio whose brother Max (Joe Anderson) and boyfriend are drafted and sent to Vietnam. When her boyfriend doesn’t come back she becomes involved in the anti-war movement and along the way finds new love with the visitor from England.
The music of The Beatles is no stranger to the big screen. In recent years the I Am Sam soundtrack brimmed with covers of Beatle tunes while Happy Feet, Kicking and Screaming and countless others have cannibalized the Beatles catalogue. The most famous use of their tunes is likely the film that Across the Universe’s producers would most like us to forget—the ghastly, yet tortuously enjoyable Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Where that movie featured the likes of George Burns warbling For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, the new film has bona fide rock stars Joe Cocker and Bono making cameo appearances.
Across the Universe, it has to be said, doesn’t look like any other movie you’ll see this year. Taymor’s trademarked visual sense is very much on display and will knock the eyeballs right out of your head. Colors pop, an Uncle Sam poster comes to life singing I Want You (She’s So Heavy) and football players bash one another in a hilariously over-the-top ballet of athletic grace. A draft induction scene is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, and the song fragment She’s So Heavy is so laden with metaphor it’s as subtle as a wallop from Maxwell’s fabled silver hammer.
Unfortunately the movie isn’t nearly as interesting sonically as it is visually. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge set the bar very high in its use of pop and rock, grafting together songs and genres into a unique aural landscape that gave the movie much of its punch and vigor. Here the songs are laid out in a fairly straightforward manner. A gospel version of Let it Be is memorable, but many of the intpretations simply sound like Broadway fluff or, even worse, American Idol Does The Beatles!
The story lurches along, predictably, from one set piece to another, with no real purpose other than to give the exceptionally good looking cast a reason to burst into song. I’m still trying to figure out why the character of Prudence appears in the film other than to facilitate the singing of Dear Prudence. The underlying themes of the movie—the anti-war message and America’s renewed image as the beacon of violent imperialism—are timely for sure, but get muddled in the trite story and the haze of boomerititus that infects every frame of the film.
Given the success of other recent boomer rock musicals, the familiar tunes of Across the Universe should be enough to please fans of musical theatre and first generation Beatles’s fans, but it is the film’s visual flair that’ll make an impression.