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Musical mystery tour

Julie Taymor reinvents the Beatles
By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 12, 2007
3.5 3.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Across the Universe

Across The Universe | Directed by Julie Taymor | Written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, And Julie Taymor | with Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther MCcoy, Cynthia Loebe, T.V. Carpio, Bono, Eddie Izzard, and Salma Hayek | a Revolution Studios Release | 133 minutes
What would the world be like with Beatles music but no Beatles? Would the songs spring forth from normal life, from the souls and the subconscious of common people? Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe posits the fragile notion that in moments of intensity, crisis, despair, love, and joy, a “Let It Be” or a “Hey Jude” can spring forth from ordinary people. No worrying about paying huge royalties for rights to copyrighted material. A movie about this world would be the perfect movie musical. Or else a pretentious, literal, cloying, unwatchable farrago.

What Taymor achieves is mostly the former. I had my doubts early on when “Jude” (Jim Sturgess) and “Lucy” (Evan Rachel Wood) appeared, cueing the soundtrack to follow. The opening scene — in which Jude stands on a desolate beach singing a lugubrious “Girl” that compares unfavorably with the teary but insouciant original — did not inspire confidence. And from the story — Liverpudlian Jude falls for radical dabbler Lucy, whose boyfriend has died in Vietnam and whose brother looks likely to follow — waft traces of Hair and Forrest Gump.

So what changed my mind? Maybe “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” which is sung by Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a dolorous cheerleader lingering alone by the sidelines at football practice, apparently to her unattainable love, the hunky, Vietnam-bound quarterback. Just when Across the Universe seems about to take the song to its pat but satisfying conclusion, it pulls a fast one, disrupting expectations, casting the number in a new context (though you may not buy Prudence coming in through the bathroom window).

Such is Taylor’s approach to the 33 Beatles tunes in the movie. They animate a character, or two or three in parallel edited sequences, people involved in a crisis, a confrontation, or a reverie with some historic or cultural milestone (the Detroit Riot, the SDS, the Merry Pranksters), sometimes in disguise, and either center screen or just around the corner. The songs reinterpret these moments almost lost to nostalgia and cliché, and the moments revitalize the songs.

Unlike the year’s other great musical, Once, which never leaves its naturalistic setting, Taymor’s film pushes the limits of artifice. A draft-board sequence takes a similar scene from Alice’s Restaurant to its psychedelic, logical conclusion: a lantern-jawed Uncle Sam sings “I Want You,” and the refrain “She’s so heavy” conjures an image that’s both hilarious and tragically relevant. Later, my favorite Beatles song, “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” transforms a veterans’-hospital ward into a spinning zoetrope. When Mother Superior jumps the gun, it’s as a dervish-like priest, and a quintet of sexy nurses (all played by Salma Hayek) apply the song’s coup de grâce. Although antic and unnerving, this number might offer the most moving musical tribute to the casualties of war since Busby Berkeley’s “The Forgotten Man” in Gold Diggers of 1933.

When you analyze it, Universe can fall apart into a pastiche of allusions and influences, starting with every movie made about the Beatles, from A Hard Day’s Night to Let It Be. Or it can be experienced as the surge of associations, exuberance, and creativity — seemingly without limit — that’s what the world with Beatles songs and the Beatles was like.

  Topics: Reviews , Julie Taymor , The Beatles , Jim Sturgess ,  More more >
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