Across the Universe (Sony Pictures/Revolution, PG-13)

film_universe_sm.jpgDepending on your receptiveness to reinterpreted Fab Four tunes, this film will either be a startling, immersive entertainment or a pretentious misfire.

 

 

 

 

 

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I don’t know if Cosmopolitan is planning to include director Julie Taymor in their "Fun, Fearless Females" feature in the near future, but they sure ought to. It takes major cajones to make a splashy, big-budget musical about the ’60s in which actors sing Beatles songs, various historical events are presented via tightly choreographed dance/set pieces in which the period’s psychedelic trappings are freely portrayed, and characters are given names like "Sadie," "Jo Jo" and "Dr. Robert," even if the respective Beatles songs featuring them are never used. And to top it off, the Beatles are never mentioned! Clearly, Taymor wasn’t dissuaded by the disastrous failure of the 1978 Peter Frampton-fronted Sgt. Pepper film, a piece of celluloid excess that still earns derision from Beatle fans today.

So what on earth would make Ms. Taymor—whose resume includes Titus and Frida on film, and The Lion King on Broadway—invest so much time and energy into the new Across the Universe? Well, it could be something as simple as the desire to make a fresh, vibrant musical about one of the most volatile periods in American history, using classic songs by the best rock ‘n’ roll band ever. And depending on your receptiveness to reinterpreted Fab Four tunes, this film will either be a startling, immersive entertainment or a pretentious misfire. For the most part, I found myself in the former category.

The film opens with a Lennon-esque Liverpudlian teen named Jude (Jim Sturgess) sitting seaside, singing a verse or two from "Girl." It tells us this’ll mostly be a love story. Jude soons travels to America in the early ’60s to make his career as an artist, and he meets the rebellious Max (Joe Anderson) at Princeton. More importantly, Jude meets Max’s pretty sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), and their tentative flirtation soon turns into something of real romantic substance. Good examples of Beatles songs given a fresh context occur through this relationship, such as Max singing "All My Lovin’" to Lucy in an urban alley, and Lucy delivering a truly stirring "If I Fell" while she privately contemplates her growing affections. Both Wood and Sturgess are good enough singers to impress with their versions of these timeless songs, and their energy both separately and together pretty much anchors this film.

Jude and Max move to New York, where they rent a cheap apartment from, well, sexy Sadie (Dana Fuchs), who’s an ambitious singer involved in a relationship with JoJo (Martin Luther), her guitarist, who is clearly meant to resemble Jimi Hendrix. This kinda thing can start to feel contrived after awhile, but when you get killer versions of "Come Together," "Why Don’t We Do It in the Road" (performed by Sadie’s band in a small club) and "Let It Be" in the process (the latter punctuating a scene recreating the Detroit riots), you start to go with the poetic flow.

The variety of settings for the Fab tunes is truly imaginative. The cast also includes a sexually uncertain Asian girl named Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who has a wonderful early scene performing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" as an intimate, virtually a cappella number, and later—during a moment of social withdrawal—inspires a robust "Dear Prudence" by Lucy, Max and Co. It’s oddly touching.

There are some memorable set pieces that keep the visual element constantly surprising (in fact, the art direction is likely to garner an Oscar nod). Max, the most vocal anti-war character, is of course drafted, and Taymor makes creative use of Lennon’s "I Want You"—as an image of Uncle Sam sings that lyric to Max and other Vietnam-bound youngsters at the recruiter’s office. The hapless recruits dance and literally become wooden soldiers, a not-so-subtle comment on the dehumanizing effects of training for violence—but the song itself sounds killer, with plenty of compelling images accompanying the insistent guitar riff.

Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary are reference points for the obligatory drug-fueled bus trip to see a famous guru way out in the country. The expedition is headed by Dr. Robert, a Hunter S. Thompson type played by Bono in a flashy cameo. Bono’s version of "I Am the Walrus" is stellar, and you can tell he had a grand time performing it. One of the most poignant scenes, though, is a lyrical, beautifully rendered sequence of the core cast, dressed in their flower-power finest and lying in a circle, gazing skyward in the middle of a vast meadow singing the gorgeous song "Because." It’s followed by a stunning, surreal underwater piece. And if JoJo’s solitary performance of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" following the assassination of Martin Luther King doesn’t make you hear the Harrison classic in a new way, well, you’re too inflexible, pal.

Across the Universe isn’t perfect—the story jumps around somewhat chaotically at times, and the specific ways Beatles lore and lyrics are referenced without the group ever being mentioned puts this film in an alternate reality of some sort. Purists are likely to cringe more than once. But I’m a sucker for ambition when combined with heart and genuine passion for music. "Music’s the one thing that makes sense anymore; it keeps the demons at bay," a character utters in one scene. In that light, what Taymor has done here is rather revelatory, and all you need is love—for those classic old songs and how they once soundtracked our culture—to come out of this movie with a feeling of awe. | Kevin Renick

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