Monday, September 24, 2007

Across the Universe

“Across the Universe” is one of the year’s best films, a stylish and wholly original musical using Beatles tunes to chart the course of several character’s lives through the 1960s.

Being a fan of the Beatles, and of musicals, I was looking forward to the movie, but did have some trepidation going in, fearing that it might be a visual and aural assault on the senses, a la “Moulin Rouge” (which is still one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had a in a movie theater.)

Fortunately, “Across the Universe” director Julie Taymor brings her own vision to the project and it’s a joy to behold.

There’s really not a conventional narrative here, but what we have is a look at the 1960s through a series of characters named after well known Beatles tunes. Jude (newcomer Jim Sturgess) comes from Liverpool to find his father who works at Princeton, befriends student Max and falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Their story takes them from a sheltered Connecticut upbringing to New York and experiences with drugs, free love, the revolution, Vietnam War protests, etc. As in a traditional musical, the characters open their mouths and sing and out come those glorious Beatles songs.

My trepidation was forgotten early on when a girl named Prudence sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand” but not in the breezy fashion we’re familiar with, but in a melancholy and haunting manner to an unobtainable object of her affection. From that point on I was hooked and stayed that way through the rest of the film.

Like songs from master composers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter or Jerome Kern, great songs are open to all kinds of interpretation, and these Beatles songs offer choice opportunities to be heard in new ways. “Let It Be” is re-imagined as a gospel number (beautifully done) and Lucy makes her awakening feelings about Jude known as she sings “If I Fell” to herself. It’s a great moment. Bono does a terrific version of “I Am the Walrus” and there’s many other musical moments to savor throughout.

Director Taymor has an amazing visual eye (I liked the soldiers carrying a replica of the Statue of Liberty through a toy jungle) but unlike “Moulin Rouge” the cutting allows the eye to grasp what is happening. The performances are all sincere, and while all the clichés of the “turbulent ‘60s” are present, they don’t seem forced but appear naturally from the material.

I loved the look of the film, and the arrangements of the songs and will happily go see it again. I know I’m leaving out a lot, and hope to get more from this amazing film experience with repeat viewings.

Unfortunately it’s a disaster at the box office, which is a shame. Admittedly, it’s a tough film to market, and with the advertising slanted heavily toward the drug angle (a small part of the film), its possible audiences thought it was going to be a two hour “head” film.

Also, many people just don’t like musicals, they don’t like their beloved songs tampered with, and they may think the 1960s are a time capsule with no relevance for today. It’s a shame they are missing one of the year’s best films.

Rating for “Across the Universe”” Four stars.

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