Director Julie Taymor (Frida) has a startling vision, and often accents her films with bizarre and unsettling special effects to punctuate a point. She also has a way with puppets and though she’s no Jim Henson, she still employs marionnettes to good effect, as seen in her stage direction of the musical adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King. Given her theatrical flair, a movie musical wouldn’t seem so out of the ordinary, and Across the Universe, for the most part works, because the genre allows for some of Taymor’s embellishments — it’s only when she goes too far, that the film sinks underneath her ambition.
Set in the 1960’s, the story opens in Liverpool. Jude (Jim Sturgess, Mouth to Mouth) leaves his dreary live as a dock worker for America to confront his biological father who left his mother when he was a child, and now works at Princeton University. There he meets a rebellious student, Max (Joe Anderson, Copying Beethoven) and the two strike up a friendship. Max’s sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood, The Upside of Anger) is his beautiful sister whose boyfriend is leaves for Vietnam. Max leaves Princeton and with Jude the two move to New York City and immediately settle into an apartment with a bluesy rock singer, Sadie (Dana Fuchs), who guards her place and her brood of tenents like a protective mother hen. Lucy also moves to New York after learning of her boyfriend’s death and falls for Jude. The two have a tempestuous relationship, while various social and political events occure as a backdrop to the love story — most notably the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Lucy becomes involved in the protests, at the expense of her relationship with Jude.
The music is all from the Beatles’ catalogue, so it’s guaranteed to be high quality music — the performers also all do very well, some better than others. Taymor also enlisted a gallery of Who’s Who to round out the cast in well-placed cameos. The most striking has to be rock singer, Joe Cocker who growls his way through an anthematic “Come Together” playing the roles of a homeless man, a burnt out hippie and a pimp. Also making a surprise appearence is U2 frontman Bono, as Dr. Robert, a Timothy Leary-like guru, who does a great rendition of “I Am a Walrus.” The Irish rocker also does a bang-up job with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” over the film’s end credits. Taymor’s Frida star, Salma Hayek also drops by (actually through the magic of film, five Salma Hayeks show up) as well in a naughty nurse’s outfit.
The cast itself does an admirable job with the singing. As the lead, Sturgess, who is relatively unknown in the United States, has to carry a lot of the film, and does so with an easy charm. He resembles Paul McCartney slightly (both have a fresh-faced boyishness), and his singing does recall Ewan McGregor’s warbling in Moulin Rouge!. Evan Rachel Wood, who initially appears as a dreadfully boring Sandra Dee clone, also does a decent job with her singing — she’ll never be mistaken for Barbra Streisand, but she doesn’t embarrass herself; her performance is rave-worthy, though. When she first is seen, her character is woefully date — a sort of cliche of a 1960’s suburban daughter; once her boyfriend is killed and she develops a social conscious (in a remarkably quick time), her character develops at a break-neck pace (the fault of the over-zealous writers), though Wood handles the plot’s hurtling speed well. Actress-singer T.V. Carpio (She Hate Me), does a fine job in her small, underwritten role as a young woman discovering her sexuality, and even though her part’s not all that well-written, she does have a highlight in her lilting version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Musician Martin Luther McCoy is decent, though his role is such an obvious homage to Jimi Hendrix that he comes off more as a plot device than a true character, but the man can sing beautifully, and does the best with the role. Dana Fuchs, who could’ve suffered the same fate as McCoy, by being an allegory of Janis Joplin, gives a beautiful performance as the conflicted, though humane Sadie, and has pipes that would put Melissa Etheridge to shame.
The movie chugs along in an agreeable fashion, and surprisingly doesn’t grind to a halt when it’s a time for a musical number. There is a sequence that almost kills the film — soon after meeting Dr. Robert, Jude, Lucy and their friends are left stranded in a field until they approach a circus tent that explodes in psychedelic musical sequence set to “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” with a cameo by comedian Eddie Izzard (television’s The Riches), who looks like Tim Curry from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The sequence is awfully staged and confusing, with melting images of the characters floating in discolored water (like oil paints allowed to bleed). The pacing grinds to an excruciating crawl.
Across the Universe won’t be entered in the canon of great musical numbers. Unlike classic MGM films, there isn’t a real standout number and the performers, with the exception of Fuchs and McCoy, aren’t natural singers (most of the voices are efficient, if nondescript). The social consciousness of the writers also veer into mawkishness, as well. The brilliance of the compositions, however transcend any dips into mediocrity.