Across The Universe, 4/5

Rated PG-13. Click to view the trailer.

It’s hard to think of another movie with such a thin plot that I so heartily recommend nor one that I can’t wait to see in the theater again as Across The Universe. Then again, such is the nature of the musical. No one has ever accused Andrew Lloyd Weber of weaving masterful plots and a person either loathes or adores Grease. So when Julie Taymor set out to direct a two-hour, 13-minute musical, she could have down worse than to shoehorn a plot into The Beatles’ catalog.

The plot: Artistically minded Jude (Jim Sturgess), leaves Liverpool searching for his father and ends up befriending Princeton dropout Maxwell (Joe Anderson, who reminds me of a young and slightly less smoky Denis Leary). To answer your questions, yes, Maxwell does at some point make use of a silver hammer. No, it doesn’t come down on someone’s head. The two young men move to Greenwich Village apartment teeming with such characters as the Janis Joplin-esque Sadie (Dana Füchs), guitar hero JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), the love-lost lesbian Asian cheerleader Prudence (T.V. Carpio) where they are soon joined by Max’s idealistic and naive sister Penny Lane no wait… Eleanor Rigby, no wait… Lucy! It’s Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood)!

Jude and Lucy hook up just as her brother is drafted and Lucy’s activism against the war drives a peace-shaped wedge between her and Jude. Even though the ending is clearly visible from miles away, the plot that more or less flows from one song to the next is enjoyable enough as is very ably acted. Imagine Moulin Rouge (sans the big name stars) set Vietnam era New York with a soundtrack scored by John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Still, you’re not going to slap down your hard-earned $12.50 to see another Vietnam Era War on the Home Front story. You’re in it for the Fab Four. You won’t be disappointed. A list of the songs we get to hear and see:
• I Am The Walrus
• Girl
• Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite
• Hold Me Tight
• Because
• All My Loving
• I Want To Hold Your Hand
• Something
• With A Little Help From My Friends
• Oh! Darling
• It Won’t Be Long
• Strawberry Fields Forever
• I’ve Just Seen A Face
• Revolution No. 9
• Let It Be
• While My Guitar Gently Weeps
• Why Don’t we do it in the Road?
• Come Together
• Across The Universe
• If I Fell
Helter Skelter
• Dear Prudence
• Happiness Is A Warm Gun
• Flying
• Black Bird
• She’s so Heavy
• Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
• Blue Jay Way
• Hey Jude
• Don’t Let Me Down
• All You Need Is Love

(Personally, I would have loved to have seen them work in Eleanor Rigby, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.)

Talk about a killer soundtrack. I know some consider The Beatles’ music sacred and shun any tampering, but Across The Universe gives us some amazing covers. Upbeat pop songs such as I Want to Hold Your Hand and If I Fell are given slow, soulful treatments that highlight just how beautiful and transcendent the songs’ lyrics truly are. By using music different than the original masters by The Beatles, the composed words truly shine. Let it Be is more or less out of place, juxtaposed with Detroit race riots, but I defy you to hear it and not be moved to the verge of tears.

All the main cast take a stab at the McCartney-Lennon songbook and they largely succeed. Sturgess sings with a thick Liverpool accent and it would have been very easy for his performance in particular to fall into Beatles imitation or worse, parody. Luckily, he carves out his own niche – despite his mop top – and does a good job handling his songs.

As an added bonus, we get to see Bono, Eddie Izzard and Joe Cocker make musical as well as acting cameos. Bono is the best as Doc Roberts who leads the cast on a magical mystery tour on a bush that would make the Partridge Family blush with shame. Eddie Izzard takes on Mr. Kite (in a scene looking like Monty Python plus Jim Henson on acid) and Cocker does double duty as a pimp and “mad hippie” (though he does not sing With a Little Help From my Friends… this isn’t The Wonder Years).

As mesmerizing at the music portion of the film is, a few words must be devoted to Across The Universe’s visuals. This is probably the movie’s weakest link. Once too often Taymor takes the easy way out and shows 1960s turmoil using psychedelic swirls and exploding colors. A little bit of this goes along way. I’m not sure where I stand on her use of puppets and makeshift animation. It is an obvious homage to The Beatles’ movies, but it stuck out to me. On the other hand, the underwater shots are gorgeous and scene where the military indoctrinates Max is genius, with ghostly Uncle Sams singing “I Want You!” A scene depicting bleeding strawberries is terrifyingly beautiful.

Considering the backdrop of the Vietnam War (I’m thinking of a poignant scene where soldiers literally carry the Statue of Liberty through rice paddies) and the setting in peace/protest movements in 60s, this movie is remarkably a-political. The movie largely ignores the issue and routs songs like Revolution No. 9 in a mainstream direction.

The bottom line? Go ye therefore and watch Across The Universe before it’s too late and it’s replaced by a screening of the latest Dane Cook movie.

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