"Across the Universe" is a surprising and ambitious musical. Make that audacious. What else could you call a project that seeks to tell a trans-Atlantic love story set against the background of the turbulent Sixties, using nothing but Beatles songs--even naming characters, planting allusions, and drawing plot inspiration from the Fab Four's songbook? And that's roughly 200 songs, we learn on the commentary track, with 34 of them (by my count) actually making it onto the soundtrack.
Sure there's a little "Magical Mystery Tour" or "Yellow Submarine" madness, but in terms of its style and structure, "Across the Universe" also owes a large debt to MTV and Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" Visually, this film by Julie Taymor--who directed "The Lion King" on Broadway and the film "Frida"--has an overcaffeinated feel, moving quickly from image to image and sequence to sequence, with the songs pulling the plot along. Like "Moulin Rouge!" (2001), it begins with a young man singing about love, and there are times when newcomer Jim Sturgess even reminds you a bit of Ewan McGregor. His voice, a pure-sounding mellow baritone that seems equally comfortable in the higher registers, is also the most like The Beatles. When Sturgess sings "Girl," "All My Loving," "I've Just Seen a Face," "Something," "Revolution," and the title song, it's the film's closest connection to the original music, and even then it's quite different.
To Taymor's credit, she brought music producer and composer Elliot Goldenthal onboard, and he made the decision not to remain faithful to the original songs, but to reinterpret them for a new generation that wasn't even born when Lennon and McCartney were writing their music. I was 14 when the British Invasion hit the U.S., and I still have my original "Meet the Beatles" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" albums. I grew up listening to their music, and I have to say that Goldenthal's arrangements, with the exception of a song or two, are positively inspired. In many cases (I know this is heresy), they're even much better than the originals. Partly that's because the interpretations often add another dimension. "Strawberry Fields Forever," for example, was originally a psychedelic song about a drug "trip" that made reference to a Salvation Army Children's Home near where John Lennon grew up. But with strawberries as bombs in this psychedelic rendition, it becomes an anti-war anthem. And "I Want to Hold Your Hand," sung by a young female high school student in Ohio as she watches a cheerleader she has a secret same-sex crush on, becomes a more sensuous confessional than the peppy teen angst of the original.
Clever re-imaginings of the Beatles' songs abound. And, of course, it's not unclever to have all of the characters named for Beatles songs while also suggesting Sixties' icons. There's Jude (Sturgess) from "Hey Jude," Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) from "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," Max (Joe Anderson) from "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," Prudence (T.V. Carpio) from "Dear Prudence," JoJo (Martin Luther) from "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," and Sadie (Dana Fuchs) from "Sexy Sadie." Stylistically, there's no mistaking Sadie's belting out of "Helter Skelter," "Why Don't We Do It in the Road," and "Don't Let Me Down" for anyone else but Janis Joplin. JoJo, likewise, with his soulful electric guitar playing on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is an obvious allusion to Jimi Hendrix. In this way, the screenplay by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais ("The Commitments") adds layer upon layer of Sixties images, so that the film itself begins to take on the pop-culture vitality of an Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein painting.
Like "Rent," this is really an ensemble musical, and all of the young actors bring an honest energy and integrity to their roles and songs. You know you're in for something special when an early sequence shows a prom where a girl (Wood) dancing with her beau sings "Hold Me Tight" while the band onstage does the backup, and then a quick cut takes us to Liverpool and the very Cavern Club where The Beatles played in the early days, with Sturgess singing the same song--each character moved by a soon-to-be loss of someone special in their lives. We're told on the commentary track that 80 percent of the songs are sung live, not lip-synched, and that organic flow and honesty really comes across.
Burgess plays a shipyard welder who wants to get away to America to a different life, while Wood, who sings solos on "It Won't Be Long," "If I Fell," and "Blackbird," plays a college-bound young woman from a slightly higher class. Eventually they find each other, but the Decade of Change intrudes on their lives in a big way. Lucy's boyfriend is killed in Vietnam in the opening sequence, and her brother, Max, ends up having to serve overseas. At home, meanwhile, the "players" come together right now over social issues, confronting police and engaging in their own version of the Ken Kesey magic bus trip, under the hippie tutelage of Dr. Robert (Bono), who sings "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Bono isn't the only celeb onboard. Joe Cocker is particularly wonderful in three small roles and singing "Come Together" with Martin Luther, Jeff Beck performs "A Day in the Life," and Eddie Izzard sings "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite."
It's the latter song, through no fault of Izzard's, that most misses the mark. Rendered too harshly, almost shouted, it's the only interpretation of Beatles' music to not clear the high bar set by the opening song. The original was far more melodic and less, well, creepy. But this was a director's decision, and I think it's the only significant misstep for Taymor.
Here's a rundown on the rest of the songs: Anderson sings "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," "Happiness is a Warm Gun," "Hey Jude," and "She Loves You." Sturgess, Wood and Lisa Hogg sing "Hold Me Tight." Sturgess, Joe Anderson and Dorm Buddies sing "With a Little Help from My Friends." Carol Woods and Timothy T. Mitchum sing "Let It Be." Fuchs, Sturgess, Wood, and Anderson sing "Dear Prudence." Elliot Goldenthal and the Secret Machines sing "Flying," "Blue Jay Way," and "I Am the Walrus." Wood, Surgess, Anderson, Fuchs, Carpio, and Luther sing "Because."
Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther sing "Oh Darling." Sturgess and Anderson sing "Revolution." And Sturgess and Fuchs sing "All You Need is Love."
This young cast did a fantastic job, and though I hate making predictions, it seems certain that they're all destined for bigger and better things--Sturgess, especially.
Gorgeous picture. The MPEG-4 transfer (2.40:1 aspect ratio) produced a picture that's smooth-looking and has a pleasing three-dimensionality as well. What slight graininess there is seems to be a director's decision and part of the production design. Colors vary from sequence to sequence, based on the evocative content of the songs, but when you get to those strawberry bombs you see full saturation. It's one of the best pictures I've seen on Blu-ray in the past few months.
Dynamite sound. Sony went with an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1, and "Across the Universe" really resonates across the TV room with a nice wide spread and the kind of mix that makes the sounds seem as if they exist naturally in space rather than emanating from a particular speaker source. The bass is strong without being overpowering or unnecessarily thumping, while the treble is clear and bright without sounding tinny. Additional sound options are Portuguese and Spanish 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Thai, and Chinese (Mandarin traditional).
The plum in this basket is the commentary by Taymor and producer-composer Goldenthal, who talk in such interesting depth about the songs and the ways they approached them that it should enthrall even non-Beatles fans. There's a real art in what they've done, and hearing them talk about their methods only confirms it.
Five short features (in HD) are also included, running anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 apiece. The longest is "Creating the Universe," which shows behind-the-scenes clips that seem so intimate and sometimes so do-over that they could have been inserted onto a blooper reel. There's also a nice feature on "Stars of Tomorrow," which sounds like a fluff piece on the young stars. Really, though, it's a nice bonus feature that focuses as much on Taymor and her relationship with her actors. I expected a promo piece, but this is far from it, and packed with information and interesting footage. "All about the Music" is as it sounds, a shorter feature that includes footage of the singers in the recording studio. "Moving Across the Universe" shows Taymor at work. Would-be moviemakers will watch this one over and over again. And finally, "FX of the Universe," the shortest of the featurettes, takes a look at how the visuals came together.
There's just one deleted scene for "And I Love Her" that comes in at under a minute, so you have to wonder why it's even here. But a half-hour's worth of extended musical performances make up for it: "Hold Me Tight," "Come Together," "I am the Walrus," "Dear Prudence," "Something," "Oh Darling," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and "Across the Universe/Helter Skelter."
Also included on the Blu-ray version is an HD still gallery that has over 100 images in it broken up into five sections or characters, with Lucy getting the bulk of the shots. It's easy to navigate, with a slideshow option. Finally, there's a bookmark function that allows you to program your favorite scenes and play them back in that order.
The bonus features are substantial, but rather than a bookmark option I'd have wished instead for a click-on menu of the songs, so that I could go directly to them in the film. It seemed like a missed opportunity.
The music and images are the thing, and yet "Across the Universe" also manages to tell a timeless love story and evoke a rich collage/montage of the Sixties. That's quite a reach. Audacious? Certainly. But, surprisingly, it works. I couldn't tell you many more details about the plot. What I walked away with was a swirling blend of images and music and a sense that I've just re-experienced the Sixties. And without drugs? That's saying something.