The Beatles survived Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees, so they’ll survive Julie Taymor, too. But lovers of their music may not find “Across the Universe” much more tolerable than 1978’s wretched “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Perhaps appropriately, coming from a director of Broadway shows, the movie resembles those revue-type musicals so popular nowadays in which a passel of songs by some rocker or other are embedded in a newly-contrived but utterly simplistic story designed to play on the nostalgia of the baby-boomer audience. But Taymor has proven an extravagantly theatrical director in films like “Titus” and “Frida” as well as onstage in “The Lion King,” and so she uses all the tricks of cinematography, editing, production and art design she can muster, along with her formidable choreographic skills, to fashion an example of the genre far more visually spectacular than anything achievable on the boards. The result is like a can of paint flung into your eyes, or a meal that consists of nothing but a succession of high-calorie deserts.
To continue that metaphor, it’s also a meal that offers conspicuously little nourishment, because the script cobbled together by Taymor, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais is a 1960s period piece that’s both banal and ludicrous. The centerpiece is a romance between a British lad from Liverpool (Jim Sturgess) who enters to U.S. illegally to locate his biological father (a World War II American soldier who left England without even knowing that the girl he was seeing was pregnant), and a small-town American lass (Evan Rachel Wood) whose soldier boyfriend has just been killed in Vietnam. The two, inevitably named Jude and Lucy, get to know one another through the girl’s brother Max (Joe Anderson), whom Jude meets when he visits Princeton to find his dad (who turns out to be a campus janitor). Before long all three are living in a big flat in New York City, surrounded by a bevy of colorful friends: Sadie (Dana Fuchs), the aspiring chanteuse who owns the place; Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), a black guitarist who becomes Sadie’s accompanist and squeeze; and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), an Ohio high school girl who just happens to be a lesbian with a crush on Sadie, too.
There’s obviously a “Rent”-like ambience to all this, but it’s drenched in the spirit of the revolutionary sixties, with lots of imagery and verbiage devoted to the usual period tropes—scenes of Indochinese combat, the draft, student demonstrations, urban riots, hippie-like communal living, police brutality, assassinations; so you might say it’s like “Rent” in the age of Aquarius, or “Hairent.” There’s also a whacked-out burst of psychedelic nuttiness when “guest stars” Bono and Eddie Izzard show up for back-to-back takes on “I Am the Walrus” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” complete with vistas turned into neon-colored phantasmagoric blurs and animation designed to simulate a head trip.
Of course, the whole shebang is told not only through dialogue—which is, frankly, of the tritest, most obvious kind—but the songs, some of which are played fairly straightforwardly while others are given elaborately stylized and theatrical treatment. Neither element works terribly well, though if pressed one will certainly choose the musical numbers over the dreary expository scenes, even if the songs are often truncated and fairly flatly performed.
Within so gaudy and loopy an environment, the cast do what Taymor demands of them, with Wood and Sturgess proving a reasonably attractive central pair with satisfactory singing voices. But Anderson makes Max one of those irritating smart-alecks who think—wrongly—that they’re clever, and his two big numbers—the early ensemble take on “With a Little Help from My Friends” and a impressionistic “I Want You” set during an induction physical—are among the film’s weakest. Fuchs and McCoy overplay rather badly, and though Carpio manages a nice “I Want to Hold You Hand” set amidst colliding football players, she disappears for so long at one point that you suspect she’ll never come back. The smaller parts are well cast, but capable actors like Dylan Baker (as Lucy’s father) and Spencer Liff (as Daniel, the SDS-like rabble-rouser Lucy falls in with, to Jude’s distress) are given such poor material that they’re simply at sea.
Technically “Across the Universe” has a lot of pizzazz—too much, in fact, for your eyes and brain not to get fatigued. But certainly cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, editor Francoise Bonnot, production designer Mark Friedberg, art director Peter Rogness, set decorator Ellen Christiansen de Jonge and costumer Albert Wolsky have to be recognized for meeting the demands of Taymor’s vision so well. (One will be less impressed by the work of the special effects crew, animators and model-makers.) The success of their efforts, though, is completely dependent on the clarity and insight of that vision, which is where the ultimate problem lies. To be sure, Taymor’s film is fascinating, but perversely so, like a train wreck; it’s big, propulsive and overwhelming, but also a mess. Flamboyance without guiding intelligence, unhappily, proves an unsatisfactory combination, but it’s the one that dominates in this “Universe.”