September 16, 2007

MOVIES: Across the Universe (Julie Taymor, 2007)

Moulin Rouge meets Hair in Julie Taymor's jukebox musical, featuring nothing but Beatles songs. The movie is a spectacular mess. There are moments of great beauty and startling originality, but there are just as many moments of jaw-dropping pretension and painful cliche.

At the center of the movie are Jude and Lucy (Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood) -- yes, all of the characters have names from Beatles songs, though not all of their songs get sung -- who fall in love, break up, and reunite against a late 60s historical panorama. None of the historical events is touched on in any depth; the approach is more scattershot than that. Look, it's race riots! Oh, there's Vietnam! LBJ, MLK, psychedelia, student protests -- all of them zipping by like three-minute rides at some demented 60s theme park.

There are two ways to successfully approach the music in this sort of project, it seems to me. You can recreate the original versions as slavishly as possible, which may bore some, but will certainly make the diehard fans happy; or you can radically reinvent the songs, which may annoy the purists, but accomplishes something a bit more creative. Taymor takes the awkward middle ground, for the most part; her arrangements and performances are close enough to the originals that they rarely feel fresh or original, but her actors are weak enough singers that we constantly find ourselves missing the original voices.

The numbers that work the best musically are those for which real singers have been brought in for cameo appearances -- Joe Cocker's "Come Together;" Bono's "I Am the Walrus" -- or those which do try to rethink the original -- "I Want to Hold Your Hand" sung by Prudence (T.V. Carpio) as a high school lesbian cheerleader torch song; "I Want You" sung by a chorus of Uncle Sam recruiting posters at a draft induction center.

As for the production numbers, they're wretched. The standard complaint about modern musicals is that they're edited too frantically, and that we never get to see dancers in full-body shots. Taymor takes frenzied editing even further, cutting from one image of dancers to another entirely unrelated image. Watch "I've Just Seen a Face," for instance; you'll see Jude and Lucy sliding down the bowling alley, Jude and Lucy leaping over the ball-return machines, anonymous dancers lying on the alleys, Jude and Lucy kissing -- all of it in rapid succession, all of it disconnected. Worst of all is Eddie Izzard's "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite;" he can't sing, and instead shouts the lyrics at us as Taymor bombards us with a collage reminiscent of (but not nearly as good as) Terry Gilliam's Monty Python work.

For all of its problems, though, there are some stunning moments. There's a shot of a high school dance, a room filled with women in white gowns and men in white tuxedos, that took my breath away; the enormous puppets of the Bread and Puppet Theater appear at a political protest; "Because" is turned into a sensual underwater ballet; Carol Woods and young Timothy T. Mitchum perform a towering gospel version of "Let It Be."

Best among the principal cast are Dana Fuchs as Sadie, a Janis Joplin type, and Martin Luther McCoy, as her guitarist JoJo, clearly inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Since they're playing singers, their songs don't have to be shoehorned into the plot, and so Fuchs and McCoy can treat them as songs instead of trying to force them into dramatic situations that they don't quite fit; their version of "Oh Darling" is especially good. (Most egregious offender in the cram-it-in-somehow sweepstakes: Struggling artist Jude is trying his hand at still lifes, including a bowl of strawberries, which leads to "Strawberry Fields Forever.")

Ultimately, the movie's biggest problem is that it isn't much fun. Just the names of these songs are enough to bring a smile to your face, but when they're each reduced to another square in Taymor's frantic historical hopscotch game, we don't have time to breathe or to enjoy them.

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