Thursday, October 25, 2007

Across The Universe (***1/2)

Directed by Julie Taymor


I must admit, before writing this review, that I’ve been a stringent Beatles fan since about age four. I’ll also admit that when brought forth the idea of a musical film, staged totally around the performances of popular Beatles songs, I sort of cringed. The film, expertly made by Julie Taymor exceeded my expectations though, making what may very well be the most beautiful film of the year.

The film centers on a young, Liverpool laborer named Jude (Jim Sturgess) who impulsively grabs a ship to America in search of his father. His father, rather unclimactically is a janitor at Princeton University. He soon meets the rambunctious Maxwell (Joe Anderson), and his sister Lucy (an angelic Evan Rachel Wood). When Maxwell drops out of college, him and Jude move to New York and shack up in an overwhelmingly communal apartment owned by the Janis Joplin-like singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs). Also, living in the quarters is the Hendrixian Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), the heartbroken lesbian Prudence (T.V. Carpio; she comes in through the bathroom window), and eventually Lucy.

Jude and Lucy fall for each other, Jo-Jo and Sadie have a steamy, but vile love affair, Prudence mopes cause she knows she will never have Sadie’s heart, and Maxwell is drafted into the Vietnam War. These are all basic plot points, and not what makes this film as enjoyable as it is. What I enjoyed so much about this film was such a successful execution in making such an enchanting movie with stories and songs that we are so familiar with.

This is a movie about the Turbulent Years of the 1960’s, illustrated by what I assume the filmmakers feel is the best pieces of music from that time. The Vietnam War is documented and protested, but not so much that you feel hit over the head with it (like so many Oliver Stone films). We see the antiwar movement, but more of how it affects the characters, than actually accounting it. Other than marijuana and Jack Daniel’s, we don’t see the characters really experiment with hard drugs, but the visuals within the film definitely suggest it. Basically, it has the images of any film about 60’s, but seems to keep a comfortable distance so we can get to know the characters.

It amazes me that I’ve gotten this far into the review without talking about the music. Which is inarguably great. The films spins the songs into meanings I would have never figured, when I danced to them as a toddler in my living room. Prudence sings “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” with such painful yearning, watching the hands of women she knows she will probably never hold. Rows and rows of plastic-looking soldiers strip down Maxwell for basic army training stating the ever popular Army phrase (and equally popular Beatles song) “I Want You” and the sequence evolves into Maxwell and other hopeless draftees carrying the Statue of Liberty exclaiming “She’s So Heavy”.

The movie has moments where it doesn’t work though. The defiant performance of “Revolution” comes off more as campy than rebellious, for instance. Eddie Izzard makes an appearance as Mr. Kite, in the film’s most creatively questionable sequence. It’s the only moment in the film where the song itself seems to be performed inappropriately. These minor flaws, though, are redeemed by sequences that both sound beautiful and are visual experiences. The constant splitting of Jude’s Pollack-like artistry with strawberries mirrored by Maxwell’s horrors in battle are played wonderfully over “Strawberry Fields Forever”.

There are cute little cameos throughout the film, such as Bono playing the shrewd Doctor Robert who sings “I Am The Walrus” while he takes his followers on a tie-dye ride on his Magical Mystery tour bus. Joe Cocker pops up as multiple characters including a stylish pimp, and a raggedy bum as he sings “Come Together”. Multiple Salma Hayeks seem to sprout out of each other, as she plays the Bang Bang Shoot Shoot nurses during a dreamy, but dreary sequence of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” as Maxwell sits in a retro hospital, recovering from war injuries. There is also the affore mentioned Izzard.

I should mention that there is one spectacular sequence that is underwater. The characters float (most of them naked) as if caught in the absolute rapture in the moment as they sing “Because”. During this sequence, a group of teenagers got up in the theater I was in, and walked out. So to be forewarned, the film takes it’s time, and is made on an epic scale. The visuals are languid, and they can be obscure in terms of meaning, but as I think I stated earlier, most of this film is a visual experience. It’s a glorious mix of ubbeat, satisfying performances, and glorious dedication to arguably the greatest Rock & Roll band of all time. So don’t get caught up on how unclear the message may be, just enjoy the ride. Don’t Let Me Down (repeat three times).

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