So, as a pseudo- "belated-Valentine's-Day" cum "thanks for putting up with my incessent hacking" present, I bought the PlatinumChick Across The Universe, which she had been wanting to see since it had come out. Since game was cancelled this week, because of the weather, we ordered some Italian and curled up on the couch to watch her new acquisition.
If you're not familiar with the concept, AtU was an attempt to structure an entire film around the songs of The Beatles--something that was done on-stage with moderate success with Billy Joel's Movin' Out. However, Movin' Out was created with the assistance of the artist himself--Billy Joel wrote the libretto along with Twila Tharp, lending specific advice to her as she tried adapting his songs for the Great White Way.
Across The Universe, however, does not gain such a benefit. When (arguably) the two most talented Beatles are dead, it's hard to ask them for advice. That said, the film forges on with a decided vision, but with a greater hand on spectacle than on storytelling.
Here's the story, in short:
Jude, a Liverpudlian lad looking very purposely like a young George Harrison, heads off to America in search of his dad, who knocked up his mum during WWII. He soon meets Max, a hoodlum on the verge of dropping out of Princeston, and his sister Lucy, who quickly becomes Jude's major love interest. Max and Jude decide to pull what we're going to call a "Johnathan Larson"--that is to say, go to New York City and live bohemian style in a house owned by landlord-cum-lounge-singer Sadie (who sounds unsurprisingly like Janis Joplin).
Long story short, Jude and Lucy fall for each other, Max gets drafted, Janis Joplin leaves her band for solo fame (including her lover, JoJo, who looks like Lenny Kravitz), Lucy starts joining the VietNam protests, and the random Asian bisexual chick (named Prudence), pops in and out generally getting her plotline lost in the shuffle.
Sound like a lot? It is. Things get somewhat confusing at times, particularly with the psychedelic visuals that accompany each song. The scenes that accompanied Max's draft physical--with the accompanying "I Want You/She's So Heavy" from the Fab Four--seemed like they came straight out of Pink Floyd's immortal The Wall, with massive Uncle Sams looming out of the walls like the eponymous schoolmaster from "Another Brick in the Wall Part II". An early scene, showing Lucy and Max's older brother being buried, along with JoJo's brother being buried, confused the ever-loving hell out of me, particularly as we hadn't seen JoJo till that point.
The problem with the idea of using all of The Beatles' songs is the fact that you want to use all of their songs. At times, plotlines become unnecessarily conveluted as the narrative shifts between characters. Max is nearly dropped for a third of the film, as he disappears off to VietNam. Prudence, however, gets the song most 'fitting' to a bisexual--"Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play..."--but then disappears herself. Same thing happens to Sadie. Things seem to happen to the characters, but then are dropped quickly, as things shift back to Jude and Lucy or over to someone else.
This probably could have been fixed, from a narrative standpoint, by focusing more closely on Jude and Lucy's romance, and leaving certain plotlines by the wayside. Trust me--rare is the case where I would want to take out a cute Asian bisexual character, but in this case, Prudence is only a distraction. The problem with that fix is the fact that you lose out on the opportunity to use the great songs, around which the plot is structured. A difficult balance, to be sure.
That said, the film is filled with great cameos. Both Bono and Joe Cocker lend their voices to a song each--I'm not really a U2 fan, but Bono's section was particularly good. However, it didn't hold a candle to Joe Cocker, playing a pimp/street-bum, singing "Come Together". Two more spectacular cameos come from Eddie Izzard, playing the psychedlic carnival-owner Mr. Kite, and James Urbaniak, better known to many as Doctor Thaddeus Venture. Man, if Urbaniak had his wire-frame glasses, his manager character would be a dead ringer for the animated super-scientist.
Performance-wise, I can fault very little with the film. The acting was geniune, the music was clear and well-sung, and you can't deny much about the score when it's done by one of the greatest bands in music history. The biggest problems, as I've said, come with pacing and narrative style, which is wrapped up in the film's intent. That, and the ending.
About halfway through the movie, Across The Universe becomes sad. Really sad. The happy little "Johnathan Larson" coven starts to break up, the bleakness of1968 starts to set in, and little seems to be going well.
The problem being? It's not how the movie ends. The movie ends on a sickeningly sweet high, with a mock-up of The Beatles' rooftop concert, everyone united and happy, and the oppresive police pushed back long enough for the last number.
Up until this, I would be giving this movie an absolutely glowing review. I've only ever once shed tears for a movie--Robin Williams' and Cuba Gooding Jr.'s "Inferno" send-up What Dreams May Come. Had Across The Universe ended before the sickeningly-sweet ending, it would have been a second. However, the filmmakers went for the happy ending to appease the mass-market audience, which left me somewhat unfulfilled, especially for what was essentially a large-budget indy film.
All told? Go see Across The Universe, particularly if you appreciate The Beatles. It's an interesting way of looking at the 60s CounterCulture, made even better by the fantastic music. If you can get over the jumpy musical-style narrative and can suffer through the Hollywood ending, you'll come out with some enjoyment.