Sunday, February 10, 2008

Across the Universe: Grade A

Across the Universe (2007)
Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, with Eddie Izzard, Bono, Joe Cocker, and Salma Hayek. Director Julie Taymor

This is not a Beatles movie but a traditional Grease-like musical about the late 1960’s in America, using exclusively Beatles songs. Director Taymor Surveyed 200 songs in the Beatles’ catalog owned by Sony (this is a Sony movie), and arranged a dozen of them to fit a conventional a romance (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl), set against Vietnam war protests. A young factory worker from Liverpool (Sturgess) comes to New York and falls in love with a girl (Wood) who is working with an anti-war movement. Her brother (Anderson) is drafted and there are antiwar marches, protests and riots until the protagonist is arrested and deported.

The characters sing their way through these events, giving the Beatles’ songs shocking new meanings. For example, Strawberry Fields has Sturgess’ character, a graphic artist, squeezing metaphorical blood from fresh strawberries against images juxtaposed from the war. An animated war poster of Uncle Sam sings, “I Want You” and that morphs into a mind-boggling reconceptualization of “She’s So Heavy.” As that song evolves a fantastic piece of choreography develops in an Army induction center. “Let it Be” becomes a song of utter despair when it is sung in the midst of the Detroit riots of 1967. As for “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” well, it demonstrates the stunning scope of Taymor’s imagination. It’s hard to believe this is the same director who filmed Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus so brilliantly a few years ago.

There is no attempt to recreate the lives, voices and sounds of the Beatles, which would be impossible anyway. Yet the visuals acknowledge landmarks in the well-known Beatles’ story. Eddie Izzard does a show-stopping, Sargeant Pepper-esque number with giant Blue Meanies (alluding to Yellow Submarine). Bono leads a psychedelic crowd seeking a guru in the countryside, in a stereotypical but still beautiful solarized and color-manipulated segment. Yoko-like characters swim underwater. The movie is rich with musical and cultural allusions that survivors of the era and fans of the Beatles will appreciate.

The music is lovingly sung, usually at a slower tempo than we remember, which highlights the beauty of the songs. Their complex production has been excised, revealing stark melodic purity. The singers perform them organically, from the heart, again making the audience reconceptualize them. The young unknown actors are very talented, especially Sturgess. His rendition of the title song makes it completely new. I think if I had not come of age with the music, I still would be enraptured by the brilliance of this movie.

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