Thursday, October 18, 2007

In Theaters: Across the Universe

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ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is a rare achievement in film as visual and musical art, one that made me wonder why other films don’t look as good. Needless to say, anything this good to look at is automatically suspect as regards actual substance. So let’s get to that right away. Is there a plot? Pretty much. Is it any good? I’d say so. Any depth to the characters? More than you’d think. In truth, the film, despite being a celebration of the dewey-eyed idealism of the Sixties, is fairly intelligent in dealing with the themes of revolution and doomed struggles against the state that this sort of thing entails. A rare modern musical specifically crafted for the screen, the film uses the music of the Beatles to examine the social context which influenced and was influenced by the group, and to keep things entertaining wraps it all up in a love story.

The film is the story of Jude (Jim Sturgess), a Liverpool dockworker who takes a ship to America to track down his father, the janitor at an Ivy League school. There, Jude meets and becomes friends with Max (Joe Anderson), a bored and aimless student who focuses more on campus hijinks than education. During a visit to Max’s home, he meets his sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), and is somewhat attracted to her, but her heart belongs to her high-school sweetie, now off in Vietnam. He is killed in action, though, and a heartbroken Lucy runs off to New York to join Max (who has dropped out of college) and Jude (who at this point is an illegal alien), both living in a squalid apartment with aspring singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs, who is indeed sexy). Other characters also move in, like JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), a black guitarist who moves to the city after a race riot, and Prudence (T. V. Carpio), an at-first deeply closeted lesbian from Ohio. Right now you’re probably having RENT flashbacks, and yes, the ensemble is very deliberately diverse and bohemian. This is, as the geekier among us like to say, a feature, not a bug. The point is, Jude and Lucy fall in love, and they and everyone else get swept up in the turmoil of the decade, a journey into uncertainty that begins when Max is drafted.

Needless to say, the songs are the star attraction here. Beatles covers are always tricky because the originals have such legendary status; it’s much like staging Shakespeare (which director Julie Taymor has also done.) The singing ability of the cast varies, but as with MOULIN ROUGE character is emphasized as much as sheer skill, and there’s nobody really bad in the mix. More importantly, the songs are placed in new contexts and given different emphasis, which is the point of a cover to start with, and it’s really this which the film derives most of its effect from. I’ll get into some of the cooler twists in a bit, but I particularly liked how “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, easily my least favorite Beatles song, was turned from stoned makeout music into a dance number for square-jawed military recruiters. I kinda like it now. Outside the songs, nearly everyone is named after someone in a Beatles song, and there are several songs not sung but referenced in the dialogue.

Thinking on it, the timeframe of the movie seems very closely keyed to the actual career of the Beatles, basically encompassing most of the Sixties and trailing off at about the same time the counterculture did. We start with pop love songs and move into psychedelic experimentation and social commentary- the songs themselves are way out of chronological order, mind you, but there’s still a general sense of exploring the same themes and ideas that the group was. Jude becomes an artist in the midst of all the chaos, and the question of what role his art plays in the revolution is a big one. “Strawberry Fields Forever” shows Jude working juxtaposed against scenes of destruction and death in Vietnam, his work speaking to the horror but also seeming to evade it, escaping somewhere where there’s nothing to get hung about. “Helter Skelter”, ostensibly about a relationship if you pay attention to the lyrics, is made political, sung by Sadie in front of footage of protests and riots, and of course I don’t think anyone’s considered that song non-political since Manson. The numbers get nastier and more confrontational as time rolls on- but there’s still a devotion to the basic idealism of the counterculture, no matter what happened to it.

The film’s visuals are truly surrealistic, combining psychedelia with the kind of modern artistic craziness that for some reason you mostly see in television commercials. It’s constantly beautiful, even when looking at fairly ugly things, and if it starts to look like a music video after a while (albeit one with unusually restrained editing), that’s not such a bad thing. It’s colorful, ostentatious, and not scared of looking silly at times. Taymor’s visual brazenness is the sort of thing I like to see in movies, and she also gets points for using a full color palette. God I sound like a crank.

The love story is the sort of thing that’s always required for this sort of movie and therefore the potential weak link, because it’s always a very idealized and simple kind of love story. Jude and Lucy have a giant blinking “Meant to Be” sign over their heads, and their romance is in some ways predictable. It is, however, rendered with more detail than usual, and some subtle playing by the leads helps. It feels natural even if it isn’t written as such. Similarly, there’s a certain cloying quirkiness to all the characters, but they manage to keep themselves likable and relatable (and there are some very amusing cameos). I do think some of the love songs are paced way too slow, though.

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is a lot smarter than you’d think, and in reimagining and reinterpreting the music of the Beatles, it manages to address the same ideas they were struggling with so often. Jude, in some ways, is fighting the same fight they did- he’s trying to be an artist when both sides of the cultural conflict demanded soldiers, trying to explore something more complex and more universal than the conflicts of the day while recognizing their importance. This is a film with hidden layers, and one I expect will age very well.

Story by Julie Taymor, Dick Clement, & Ian La Frenais
Screenplay by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais
Directed by Julie Taymor

Grade: A-

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