Friday, July 18, 2014

Across the Universe

Originally Written and Posted at on 10/14/07 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Directed by Julie Taymor and written by Taymor, Dick Clement, and Ian La Frenais, Across the Universe is a musical inspired by the music of the Beatles about a Liverpool boy who travels to America to find his long-lost father as he falls in love with an American girl during the 1960s. The film is an exploration into a period of time set to the music of the Beatles as it plays into the idea of peace and love through some of the most tumultuous moments of the 1960s. Starring Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, T.V. Carpio, and cameos from Eddie Izzard, U2's Bono, and Frida star Salma Hayek. Across the Universe is a dazzling and off-the-wall film from Julie Taymor.

In his dour world of Liverpool, a young man named Jude (Jim Sturgess) is hoping to find his father in America, who left his mother (Angela Mounsey) as a baby. Leaving behind his girlfriend Molly (Lisa Hogg) and the world he's known for all of his life, Jude enters into a new world. Landing himself in Princeton, he finds his father Wes Huber (Robert Clohessy) working as a janitor while revealing that he has his own family. Staying in his father's bunk in Princeton, Jude befriends a student named Max (Joe Anderson) after a night of fun. Max, who lives in an upper class home of sorts, invites Jude to Thanksgiving as they meet Max's sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). When Max announces to his family his decision to drop out of school and go to New York City, only Lucy is supportive of the decision with Jude joining along.

Arriving at the city, they stay at the apartment of a singer named Sadie (Dana Fuchs) who has also invited African-American singer-guitarist JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy) as well as a young Asian-American named Prudence (T.V. Carpio). For a while, things to be great with Jude pursuing his artistic pursuits in drawings and paintings as Max decides to invite Lucy to the city. Lucy, still in mourning over the death of her high school boyfriend Daniel (Spencer Liff) at the war, falls for Jude as everything seems to be fine. Then Max receives news that he's been drafted to join the Army forcing Lucy to deal with her feelings towards the war. With Max hoping not to get drafted, things get tense when Sadie is considered for a label deal of her own rather than her band with JoJo. After a party with Dr. Roberts (Bono), they end up taking a trip and have another party with Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard) as Prudence has joined his circus.

Upon their return to New York City, Max has been drafted and sent to Vietnam for the war. Sadie and JoJo begin to separate while Lucy becomes more involved in activism with an activist named Phil (Michael Ryan). Jude however, decides to not be involved with peace movements in order to pursue his own art which causes friction with Lucy. Yet, as things become tense and nothing is improving over the war or the protests, Jude tells Lucy about her involvement as he and JoJo try to find their own worlds through their art. Finally after another protest where Jude, is suddenly involved, things start to fall apart as Jude gets help from the last he expects to help him as everyone is forced to look inward.

While musicals aren't for all audiences, a musical with music by the Beatles is a tough sell yet the result is definitely spectacular. Even from the mind as someone as ambitious from Julie Taymor. While the result isn't entirely perfect, what she brings to the film is a look that is completely its own and with the music of the Beatles, Taymor brings everything back to the 1960s. With puppet-like sets, visual collages, and everything that seems to represent the psychedelic 60s, it's definitely a film that will stimulate as well as warp the mind of the viewer.

The film's script definitely has an interesting structure in how the music is presented and where it's taking place. The first act starts off very innocently with early music from the Beatles including some more upbeat tracks. From the dour world of Liverpool that Jude lives to the beautiful suburbia that Lucy lives in. Yet, the tone begins to change when both Lucy and JoJo have their first encounter with death, in JoJo's case, the death of a family member following the Detroit riots in '67. In the second act, the music is geared towards mid-60s Beatles where everything at first seems fine and then chaos ensues. By the third act which is around '68-'70, things start to wind down as everyone faces their own sense of disillusionment. Yet, a lot of what happens includes many references to not just that period but also the moments that happened to the Beatles as well.

The script works for the most part though it starts out very clunky and when a musical sequence is going to happen, the audiences tends to know what's going to happen. That's part of the film's weakness at first even as it has the feeling where the performance feels like a music video. Yet, as the film continues, things start to relax as the audiences know what's going to happen where the music and story finally gel. A lot of credit goes to Taymor in her presentation that includes some wonderful sequences that involves dancers and sets where the whole film does feel like theater. Then there's the music that plays to the film and by the second act, it starts to feel very natural and comforting while the message that goes in terms of what was going in the 60s doesn't feel heavy-handed. It's more about what the characters are going through and such.

Helping with Taymor's vision in terms of her staging and musical numbers is choreographer Daniel Ezralow whose choreography feels natural and not in an engaging way that would make the viewer uncomfortable. It actually works to emphasize the emotions and the feeling of where the characters are. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel use of lights from the multi-colored lights mixed in with animation sequences, visual effects design by Dongho Lee that brings some joy and rhythm to whatever sequence that's going on. Delbonnel's photography is exquisite with some wonderful exterior shots that look naturally dreamy while the interiors are amazing to the staging of the film. Editor Francoise Bonnot does some fine work with a lot of the film's editing without making into that rapid, MTV-style of cutting that's dominant in a lot of films. Instead, it moves very well with the rhythm and tone of the music as well as the emotions in the performances.

Production designer Mark Friedberg along with set decorator Ellen Christansen and art director Peter Rogness do some amazing work in the film's production. Whether it's the flashing lights that pop up during the bowling alley sequences, a hospital scene that involved a bunch of nurses played Salma Hayek, the puppets, and a lot of the recreation of 1960s psychedelic clubs, and the Liverpool club that's a reference to the Cavern where the Beatles played in their early years. The overall work on the production is amazing in every detail and look with its use of locations. Costume designer Albert Wosky does some great work with the film's look whether it's the leather-like, black look of Jude, the upper-class look of Lucy, to the psychedelic looks of Sadie and JoJo. Each look the film has in its costume works well with the period. Even in the makeup by Mary Aaron and Louise McCarthy do great work, even with the masks that some of the people wear.

Sound effects editor Wyatt Sprague does some great work in creating the atmosphere of the locations where the characters are as it plays to the tone of the film, particularly in the second and third act. Taymor's husband and music composer Elliot Goldenthal brings a nice film score that plays to Max's horrors at war as well as the sense of disillusionment that comes in the third act with its soft, orchestral score. The rest of the film soundtrack is definitely filled with Beatles covers and to its surprise, they were all actually well performed and sung by the cast. Standout cuts include Jeff Beck's guitar performance of A Day In The Life, Martin Luther McCoy's While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Because by the entire cast, and many more. It's an overall fantastic soundtrack.

The cast is definitely unique with cameos from Dylan Baker as Max & Lucy's father, Bill Irwin as their uncle, James Urbaniak as Sadie's manager, Salma Hayek as a gorgeous nurse (who wouldn't want her as 6-7 nurses?), and Joe Cocker doing a cover of Come Together in three different roles including a pimp that's a sight to see. U2's Bono makes a glorious cameo while sporting a cool American accent as this guru named Dr. Roberts. Other small appearances from Robert Clohessy, Angela Mounsey, Linda Emond as Lucy's mother, Lisa Hogg, Spencer Liff, and Michael Ryan are good in their small roles. T.V. Carpio is excellent as the confused Prudence who is trying to find her own identity as well as her own role in the world. Though her role is small, she makes most of her appearances leaving the viewer wanting more as she does a nice cover of I Want To Hold Your Hand. Dana Fuchs is impressive as the bohemian, Janis Joplin-like singer Sadie who is just sexy and a hell of a vocalist as her renditions of a few Beatles song in a bluesy style.

Martin Luther McCoy is great as the Jimi Hendrix-like character JoJo who can play a mean guitar while doing some spirited, soulful renditions of While My Guitar Gently Weeps while his duets with Fuchs are just awe-inspiring to convey their love-hate relationship. The film's real breakthrough performance is Joe Anderson as the non-conforming Max who brings a very energetic, spirited performance that is a sight to watch. The British actor not only sports a perfect American accent but his singing and dance is equally as impressive in songs like Hey Jude, Happiness Is A Warm Gun with Salma Hayek, and With A Little Help From My Friends with Jim Sturgess. Jim Sturgess is incredible as Jude, a young man who just wants to make art and have fun. Sturgess' vocal performance is amazing as he definitely adds emotions and angst into the songs, notably Revolution, Across The Universe, Girl, and Something. Sturgess not only can sing but also act as his chemistry with Evan Rachel Wood is insatiable. Evan Rachel Wood delivers a strong yet complex performance as Lucy who starts out as an innocent young girl who is forced to find reason over the death of her first boyfriend. Wood definitely is the acting veteran among her main cast while proving to sell herself not just in the film's dramatic moments but also the musical performances. Wood's vocals are definitely impressive and natural as she sings them with such life on songs like It Won't Be Long, If I Fell, and Blackbird.

Across the Universe is a marvelous film from Julie Taymor. While it is a very flawed film, it is a film that manages to be a lot of things as it includes a superb cast and amazing technical work. Especially as it has something to offer for fans of the Beatles to see these songs be re-interpreted for a new generation. In the end, Across the Universe is a visually spectacular film from Julie Taymor.

Julie Taymor Films: Titus (1999 film) - Frida - The Tempest (2010 film) - The Auteurs #42: Julie Taymor

© thevoid99 2014


Brittani Burnham said...

Great review! I agree it has some flaws, but I enjoyed it very much. I think Evan Rachel Wood has such a lovely singing voice. I normally hate Beatles covers, but I loved the ones here.

thevoid99 said...

Thank you. It was flawed though I wonder if I want to revisit it. I'm not a fan of Beatles covers but if they're done right. I'll enjoy it.

Evan's voice is amazing. I don't know why she isn't in more musicals.

ruth said...

I quite like Jim Sturgess, and this premise sounds like something I'd enjoy. I might give this a shot at some point, tho it's not perfect as you said but it still might be quite entertaining.

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-Jim Sturgess is someone I like as I think this is a pretty good film though I'm unsure if I want to revisit it as it is a very flawed film.