Across the Universe (Julie Taymor, 2007) is a grand experiment more than it is anything else. The experiment? Take a handful of existing Beatles songs and shape a story based on the lyrics of those songs. The result is an uneven, yet entertaining musical set in America during the Vietnam War. It includes a heavy stream of anti-war imagery as well as a mentionable psychedelic callback to Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary (think: Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). But really, this is a simple coming-of-age / love story wrapped in a clever concept.
That being said, the musical sequences are definitely the standout, memorable moments of Across the Universe. And while a few of these numbers certainly fall flat and feel forced (“Dear Prudence,” “Strawberry Fields Forever”)— the majority are highly effective, including: “I Want to Hold Your Hand;” “With A Little Help From My Friends;” “Let It Be;” “Come Together;” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy);” “I Am the Walrus;” and “All You Need is Love.” Whether all of these classic songs mesh well within the same film, I’m not sure.
Which leads me to what I believe is the greatest shortfall of Across the Universe, and that is its sprawling nature and numerous characters. Perhaps this concept would benefit from a slightly more focused storyline with fewer characters. Which isn’t to say that the problem is simply that there are too many characters. The problem is some of them feel forced, as if they exist solely to bring about a particular song / plot point, which takes us out of the story, and adds length to an already long movie. Perhaps the filmmakers are overly ambitious here, as they strive to cover what seems like all that was the counterculture during the Vietnam War era. The consequence is a lot of passionately inspired musical sequences that don’t quite add up to a completely satisfying whole.
It makes me wonder how this experiment would have played out if given a different, more unexpected context. For example, instead of a flowerchild, Vietnam era period piece, maybe a modern day setting would have been more prescient. Instead of a main character from Liverpool who looks exactly like one of the Beatles, perhaps the opposite of that would have been cool. Instead of a sprawling multi-plot structure, maybe a more intimate, smaller story about love would have been better fitting. Of course this is all in retrospect, and let’s face it, there are A LOT of Beatles songs, and this concept could have gone in any number of directions.
In any case, I do love this concept and I am glad this movie exists. I love that all of the characters names are based on songs (Jude, Lucy, Sadie, Maxwell, Prudence). I love Joe Cocker’s cameo in “Come Together” and Bono’s in “I Am the Walrus.” These sequences alone make the movie worth seeing. The performances are strong across the line, and the music is superb throughout. Conversely, if you’re NOT a Beatles fan, I’m not sure this movie has much to offer you (unless you’re doing research on modern musicals in film or are interested in the counterculture era during the Vietnam War). However, if you ARE a Beatles fan, I’d suggest taking a look at this movie. You may love it, you may not, but I can confidently say that you’ll leave this movie humming the tunes in your head.
In the end, though, when all is considered, I think I’d prefer to just sit back, put on my favorite Beatles album, and “get high with a little help from my friends.”