The Beatles are so ubiquitous in popular culture that they almost don’t seem like a mere rock and roll band, or as Paul McCartney put in the Beatles Anthology documentary, “just a really good little band; nothing more, nothing less.”
The Beatles were (and are, as proven by the recent “Beatles Love” and “Beatles 1” compilations) a cultural force as big or bigger than any political or religious movement in the last century. They were the ultimate crossover band, which means that almost everyone feels like they own a piece of them and can connect their songs to specific moments and emotions in their lives. I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone tried to make a movie with wall-to-wall Beatles music that doesn’t actually have anything to do with the band itself. Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” is the result, and I’m a little disheartened to report that it is a mixed bag, at times transcendent and frustrating at other times. I’m recommending it, but with one caveat: I can by no means promise that you will like it.
The movie tells the story of … well, a lot of things really, but it is at its core a love story about Jude (played by a very charming Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (the always excellent Evan Rachel Wood). Get used to it. Practically every character’s name is inspired by a Beatles song. If that idea makes you roll your eyes (as it did mine when I first read about it), that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll hate the movie, but it certainly doesn’t help.
Anyway, we meet Jude singing “Girl” from “Rubber Soul” to the camera, which segues into a flashback. Actually, it isn’t so one flashback as it is a montage of trippy images from Jude’s past set to “Helter Skelter.” After that we are introduced to Jude’s old life in Liverpool, as well as that of the American girl, Lucy. It was in these first 15 minutes of watching the Beatles songs blend in effortlessly with the movie’s action and presenting the characters in a relatable way that I smiled widely and decided I already loved the movie. The camera cuts to Lucy’s high school dance, where she is dancing with her boyfriend to “Hold Me Tight.” That song is similar to early Beatles hits like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You,” but is not as well known, although every bit as good. This scene then cuts between Lucy at the dance and Jude dancing with his girlfriend to a grittier version of the song at a Liverpool pub that looks the Cavern, the place where the Beatles developed a big following.
Jude decides to take a boat to America to find his biological father, singing “All My Loving” to his girl as he leaves. Once he finds his father, a maintenance worker at an Ivy League school, he meets Lucy’s brother, Max (Joe Anderson). Max takes Jude out for a wild night on the town, showing him how he parties “With A Little Help From My Friends.” As the sun rises, the guys come staggering in from outside and harmonize on the last chords of the song before collapsing on the couch.
Max takes Jude home with him for Thanksgiving, where Jude immediately falls for Lucy. They go out to a bowling alley, where Jude sings a fast and happy “I’ve Just Seen A Face.” The scene works quite well because Taymor picks the perfect song for the moment. The song perfectly nails what it feels like to meet someone and develop an instant infatuation with that person, feeling like your life might have just changed and that nothing in the world is more important. I’ve always loved the simple-but-profound line, “She’s just the girl for me and I want all the world to see we’ve met.”
This type of scene shows how the movie works best: that is, relating Beatles songs to things we’ve all experienced. Unfortunately, as Taymor starts to use the later Beatles, she falls into the trap of manipulating the characters and the story to open the door to specific songs. Sometimes it works just fine, but other times it causes the movie to fall flat. Although I thought I loved it at first, I had to reconsider before the film was even halfway over.
This isn’t to say that the movie isn’t worth seeing. There are some moments that were so perfect that I wouldn’t mind watching again right now, even from the movie’s less consistent second half. The first half succeeds on almost pure energy before it starts to lag and the plot becomes more contrived and the characters less believable.
Even worse, the movie becomes self-conscious as nears its finale, in which the characters sing on top of a roof and get the cops called on them, à la “Let It Be.” In the film’s last breath, I just couldn’t handle a wink at the audience that huge. Not to mention, Taymor makes the decision to not just set the movie in the ‘60s, but to also be ABOUT the ‘60s. Although the Beatles’ music spans such a wide variety of styles that it can be considered to be representative of what the ‘60s had to offer, they were first and foremost the Beatles – not A Decade.
Still, if you can take the good with the bad, “Across the Universe” is worth seeing once if just for the crazy experience of it all. A word of warning to parents, though. I was sure while I was watching it that the movie was rated R. A soft R, perhaps, but an R nonetheless. Although it doesn’t have much swearing in it, there is a little nudity, some explicit drug use and LOADS of implied drug use. This didn’t surprise me, since this is a trippy musical that takes place in the ‘60s. However, I was still very surprised when I found out the movie was rated PG-13. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
“Across the Universe” is rated PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned.