The movie musical is a strange beast, you can’t linger on the shore, you can’t just dip a toe in, you have to dive in head-first and hope you don’t give yourself a concussion. Reserved detachment is not an option. Now this can be scary, there are a whole lot of bad movie musicals out there (I’m still recovering from the tongue lashing I got from Tom Hooper’s rendition of Les Misérables), but there is also something beautiful about surrendering yourself to a world so completely separate from your day-to-day existence. If the movie musical is a strange beast then the rock opera can be a monster; stringing unrelated songs together to form a narrative usually results in a nostalgic patchwork, doing justice to neither the story nor the source material. But against all odds Across the Universe is something special.
Directed by Julie Taymor, Across the Universe tells a story of the sixties through the musical catalogue of the Beatles. Instead of taking a Forrest Gump approach of having one character be emblematic of the decade and see everything in the decade, Taymor put together an ensemble of six characters for whom the sixties meant different things. This gives the story a richness and diversity that many period pieces lack, allowing her to weave together the experiences of a Liverpudlian immigrant looking for his father, a young Asian-American lesbian in the Midwest, a pair of white upper-middle class siblings from Brookline, a Joplinesque singer in the East Village and Jo-Jo, a black guitarist from Detroit who moves to New York after the race riots of ’67 kill a young family member (it is never made clear if it is his brother or his son, but either way it is a heartbreaking moment in the film set to a gospel rendition of Let it Be). When Jo-Jo says, “Music’s the only thing that makes sense anymore, man. Play it loud enough, it keeps the demons at bay,” it could easily be a cliché, but knowing what we do about the character and his history it becomes a quiet expression of repressed pain. This is a man who lost everything and left the rest behind, music really is what he has left. Across the Universe is full of almost clichés like this, lines and images that in the wrong hands could have turned maudlin, but Taymor has created a world just surreal and crooked enough that you buy it.
Julie Taymor is one of the most visually inventive directors of both stage (she managed to transform The Lion King from an animated Disney movie to a live phantasmagoria of masks and puppets (and billions of dollars in profits)) and screen (two Shakespearian adaptations and a gorgeous, frustrating, fascinating biopic of Frida Kahlo (Frida is also available on Netflix streaming)). Watching Across the Universe it becomes obvious that the director is experienced in theater, long takes, full of elaborate choreography and timing, must have taken hours of rehearsal to perfect (the I Want You and Come Together sequences in particular), but despite this Across the Universe is fully and vitally a movie. It doesn’t have the stagey static quality that Phyllida Lloyd brought to her movie of Mamma Mia a year later in 2008. Taymor is a visual artist first and foremost, and she will use all the tricks at her disposal to heighten whatever medium she is working in. The movement of the camera, the framing, the lighting, the editing, the effects (both practical and digital) are all employed to tell the story in the most beautiful way possible. In her words “What I adore is the juxtaposition of high tech and low tech. It’s sort of like I love the sacred and the profane. I love to put these extremes in the same hopper” (Interview Magazine 3.25.11). Taymor is a brilliant stage director, but she knows the difference between theater and cinema and revels in the freedoms that she is afforded in a film (credit is also due to Amelie cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, and veteran second generation editor Françoise Bonnot, who has worked with Taymor on all four of her feature films).
Across the Universe is a painstakingly crafted, stunningly beautiful film, but that doesn’t mean everyone will like it, and you just have to look at the reviews to see how divisive it can be. Part of the issue is that you can’t hold on too tightly to the Beatles’ arrangements of their songs. The biggest Beatles fans I know are also the ones who have liked it the least, and because of this I don’t think it’s helpful to look at it as “The Beatles’ Musical” (The Beatles made a few of those themselves, they are delightful). Across the Universe requires you to listen to these familiar songs from a different angle, and it is entirely possible that you will think that it is the wrong one. Taymor acknowledges this, and in order to make the film she had to look at the songs not as Beatles songs, but as songs written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison. “Those are songwriters. That means their songs can be interpreted by many performers–and to limit it to the Beatles is a mistake. Those are perfect performances, but that doesn’t mean those songs can’t be re-interpreted” (Hollywood.com). Re-interpret them she did, and in doing so she created a beautiful, very personal portrait of the sixties. In the end it can be summed up in the words of Ken Kesey channeled in the film through Bono’s Dr. Robert “What can I say? You’re either on the bus, or off the bus.”
“Somewhere around its midpoint, Across the Universe captured my heart, and I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person. Imperfections, however glaring, become endearing quirks once you’ve tumbled.” – Stephen Holden, NYTimes