Across The Universe
, 06 Oct 2007
In the late 1960s young Liverpudlian Jude (Sturgess) travels to the USA to find the father hes never met. He finds his Dad; a janitor at Princeton University and soon falls in with Max (Anderson), a college dropout. Jude and Max move to New York, where Maxs sister Lucy (Wood) soon joins them and she and Jude fall in love. Meanwhile Max is drafted, Lucy becomes active in the stop the war movement and Jude tries to become an artist. All while singing Beatles songs.
Julie Taymors directorial debut Titus is one of the strangest Shakespeare movies ever made. Resetting the play in Roman times, yet using modern touchstones like cars and arcade games it throws you into a completely imagined world and while, at times, it feels scattershot; it is proof of a blazingly original vision at work. So too is Across The Universe. The difference being that Titus works, while Across The Universe is one of the more complete failures to be released to cinemas in 2007.
The first big problem with Across The Universe is evident as soon as you see the list of character names. The utter thudding obviousness of using the names Jude and Lucy for the protagonists (and Max[well], Jojo and Prudence for other characters, to mention mercifully few) smacks of extreme laziness from screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais. This laziness abounds as they introduce new characters every few minutes, new storylines just as often and develop precisely none of them. These arent people were watching, they are mouthpieces, designed to spout unbelievably banal dialogue (Music is the only thing that makes sense anymore... play it loud enough and it keeps the demons at bay) for a couple of minutes then launch into the next awkwardly crowbarred in Beatles song.
The songs themselves are great. Okay so not all of them are exactly from the first rank of Beatles greats (For The Benefit of Mr Kite) and there are few of the fun rock n rollers that marked the bands early career but time has not dimmed the brilliance of songs like I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Let It Be or Strawberry Fields. Sadly the singing and staging of the songs is, at best, mixed.
On the plus side T.V Carpios rendering of I Wanna Hold Your Hand as a ballad about longing is incredibly well done, affectingly sung, and made me look at what I used to think was a happy song in a new way. Eddie Izzard does well with a spoken Mr Kite, to which he adds bits of improv (Come and see the show, weve got
stuff), which were a delight for this longtime fan of his stand up. Evan Rachel Wood (continuing her admirable resistance to easy choices) reveals that shes got a pretty singing voice, and Dana Fuchs forceful vocals are particularly enjoyable on Helter Skelter.
Sadly for every well sung tune there are several that made me want to hack my ears off. Particularly bad is our lead Jim Sturgess, whose thin voice does nothing for these songs. Also notably bad are tunes like Let It Be, rendered as gospel, a terrible Revolution and the title track; which fails to meet not just the original but Fiona Apples wonderful cover.
Its not merely the way the songs are sung though. Its the way they are slotted into the story. Prudence develops a crush on Sadie (Fuchs), guess what the gang sing to coax her (literally) out of the closet. Jude looks at some strawberries, Ill give you a clue, the next song isnt Get Back. The staging too is often bungled. With A Little Help From My Friends has Max and Jude getting high with, yes, a little help from their friends. I Want You (Shes So Heavy) has Max being addressed by the Uncle Sam I Want You poster and a group of soldiers carrying the Statue of Liberty on their backs (what could Taymor be getting at?)
And yet, when Taymor gets it right Across The Universe shows flashes of her visual genius. The barking Mr Kite sequence and a solarised trip scene work well, as does a bowling alley song and dance to Ive Just Seen A Face, while a hospital set Happiness Is A Warm Gun makes a nice change from the usual literal interpretation of the songs, and provides a slinky bonus in the shape of five (count em) Salma Hayeks.
Viewed as a complete film Across The Universe is simply baffling. Watching it I kept wondering not just what drugs the people who made it were on but what possessed anyone to finance this in the first place and then to release this misbegotten pile of celluloid to cinemas around the world. Make no mistake Across The Universe is dreadful, but its so dreadful that theres a perverse fascination about it.
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