Though the music is familiar—33 Beatles songs—and the story is about as trite as it gets, Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe gives us some of the most sumptuous visuals and unabashed romanticism ever seen on film, and that’s enough. A story of 60s revolution and romance set to the tune of songs that defined the era, Across the Universe is brilliant if only for its daring; like the Vietnam war protesters it depicts, the film never quite achieves its goals, but reaches something just as powerful in the process.
The film starts off strong, introducing our characters in their various locations as they awake to the potential revolution of the changing decade. Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a Liverpudlian bidding goodbye to his sweetheart (with “All My Loving”) as he makes his way to America, while Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a high school girl in the suburbs, sings “It Won’t Be Long” before she and her Vietnam-bound boyfriend are together (you can probably guess he doesn’t make it back). Jude quickly befriends Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson), a Princeton student who informs Jude that he gets by “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Elsewhere, Prudence (T.V. Carpio) is an Ohio cheerleader crooning to a fellow pom-pom bearer “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” before she hits the road and heads for New York.
Max, Jude, Lucy and others eventually do the same, moving into the communal Greenwich Village apartment run by Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a sexy rock-and-roller with a Janis Joplin growl. They arrive to the tune of “Come Together” (led by Detroit escapee JoJo, played by Martin Luther McCoy), listen to Sadie and JoJo’s band singing “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?”, and encourage a depressed Prudence to come out to see the day with, well, you probably know by now. Jude and Lucy fall in love, as do Sadie and JoJo, while Max must face his call to duty in Vietnam.
The music in the first half of the film fits seamlessly with the story, whether it’s a fantastical dance number in a bowling alley to “I Saw a Face” or Lucy gently musing on her potential romance with Jude by singing “If I Fell.” The most spectacular of these early numbers is “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, a terrifying stylized scene of military indoctrination in which recruits are stripped down and examined in tiny boxes, before being sent to the jungle to haul the Statue of Liberty (the “she” of the title). At the end the song morphs into a seductive dance between Sadie and JoJo, a brilliant balance of both the song’s darkness and inherent romance.
About halfway through the film, even as the musical numbers get weirder and more visually splendid, the story starts to lose its way. The whole gang joins up with the mysterious Dr. Robert (Bono, doing a creditable American accent), who drives them off in his psychedelic bus to meet Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard), a ringmaster from hell who dances with ten blue puppet men. Though it may be a gorgeous—and crazy— interpretation of Lennon and McCartney’s lyrics, what the hell does it have to do with the rest of the film? Not a thing. The story kind of lurches along after that, as the heady excitement of bohemia gives way to the gritty protests and Vietnam footage that defined the rest of the decade, and our lovers must go through the expected ups and downs of romance that has been seen many times before.
It’s a shame, too, that the stories are so rote, because the visuals and emotions that Taymor has evoked often feel entirely new. The performers all sing their hearts out, and act great too, and in many moments truly connect us to their characters. With their stories so predetermined, though (who would guess that Sadie gets cocky with fame, or Lucy comes to see the arrogance of her anti-war heroes?), it’s hard to get too worked up about what happens in the meantime.
Quite frankly, though, the stories aren’t what matters. Across the Universe could have been a better film, but it’s pretty stunning as it is, and opens up new vistas of the imagination in the way that youth and rock and roll themselves have been known to do. Much more than pure baby boomer nostalgia, Across the Universe tickles a nerve for anyone willing to let aesthetics and genuine emotion sweep them away.