The Beatles are the subject of the muzziest human reveries, like other vague capitalized topics such as "Christ" or "Poetry" or "Love." Trying to visualize a concept this high is the quickest path to kitsch, and director Julie Taymor's Across the Universe is rock-solid kitsch, compete with giant puppets, hidebound lyricism and chiffon-wrapped floating nudes, much like the levitating Greek oracle in 300. (The more I see "tasteful nudity," the more I'm convinced I'm only interested in the distasteful kind.) With Across the Universe, there's something lacking. What it needs is a damned good whacking.
Thirty Beatles songs are ransacked for this period musical. A Liverpool boy ("Jude," Jim Sturgess) crosses the pond to search for his father, a WW II GI who abandoned him. There he meets a patrician American girl ("Lucy," Evan Rachel Wood). Meanwhile, Lucy's brother Max (Joe Henderson), a wastrel Princeton dropout, risks being drafted for Vietnam.
The three principals live in a New York flat, where the landlady is the Janis Joplin--like Sadie (Dana Fuchs, channeling Idina Menzel in Rent). Sadie's common-law-boyfriend-cum-backup-guitarist is the Jimi Hendrix&–like Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) from riot-torn Detroit. Coming in through the bathroom window is the incipient lesbian Prudence (T. V. Carpio).
Now that we have something like the cast of Friends together, the movie seems staffed with nothing but minor characters. Together, they endure the turmoil of that one particular decade that no one wants to see reenacted on screen again as long as they live.
Across the Universe's take on the 1960s is politically spineless. Lucy drifts into antiwar activities and begins hanging with a thinly veiled version of the activist group Students for a Democratic Society. Her telephone call home: "I'm a radical! You should be a radical, too. Everyone should be a radical!" In turn, Jude berates the activists with a rendition of "Revolution." How did a worker from the Liverpool docks end up so apolitical? Finally, a restaging of the accidental Weatherman bombing at a New York townhouse demonstrates the wrongness of all antiwar efforts--except, that is, for carrying puppets and crying.
Drugs darken this film's door when a Neal Cassady-like Dr. Robert arrives via magic bus. As the driver, Bono provides an acceptable version of the Beatles' great moment of foaming, wrathful Dada, "I Am the Walrus." It's equaled only by Joe Cocker's downtown pimp singing "Come Together." Weirder is Salma Hayek in a digitized five-part harmony. She's dressed in naughty-nurse regalia and wields a hypodermic. This Cinco de Salma party, set to "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," is indebted to the "Acid Queen" sequence in Tommy. You won't remember it, but it convinced virginal viewers worldwide that LSD was an injectable drug.
Of Eddie Izzard's "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" it is perhaps best not to speak.
The ballads and the raveups alike are mashed (or rather, mushed). Taymor (Frida, The Lion King) sought artlessness and got amateurism. The songs that work do so despite what performers do to them. "Blackbird," like John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," seems to survive any musician.
Illustrated with derivative or catastrophic psychedelia, the film bottoms out when Jude creates the "Strawberry Records" logo. Impaled on pushpins, a basket of berries hang, leaking gore. It's a veritable dysfrutopia. So many little bleeding hearts, just like the one Across the Universe has on its sleeve. What a bloody mess.
'Across the Universe' should open wide on Friday, Sept. 21, if the reviews don't kill it first.
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