All you need is love — for the Beatles, for psychedelic visuals, for ideas about being young in the ‘60s — to fully enjoy “Across the Universe.” Julie Taymor has delivered an audacious, idiosyncratic creation that plays like a riff on “Hair” with Fab Four cachet, stretching a thin love story across one tumultuous decade. It’s all played with such conviction, that it’s hard to dislike but hard to take seriously. Pic’s commercial prospects look more in line with those of “Rent” than of “Chicago,” though the Taymor touch achieves enough sporadic moments of invention and punch-drunk romanticism to steal the hearts of baby boomers and young female auds in particular.
The flaky, freewheeling tuner features a cast of relative unknowns delivering fresh renditions of 33 classic tunes. The studio paid $10 million for use of the Beatles songs, which didn’t include rights to use the original recordings (and the group is not even mentioned in the ad campaign).
After her Broadway smash “The Lion King” as well as her feverishly operatic pics “Titus” (1999) and “Frida” (2002), it seemed inevitable that Taymor’s visual imagination and flair for spectacle would lead her to direct a movie musical.
Purists may not appreciate what Taymor and scribes Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have wrought — a cute romance set against an overly familiar backdrop of Vietnam War protests, mind-altering substances and tortured-artist navel-gazing — in which spoken dialogue is minimized, allowing the music and lyrics to shape the narrative.
Main characters’ names offer immediate clues about song offerings: Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) is a beautiful American teen who just kissed her Army-bound boyfriend goodbye, while handsome Jude (Jim Sturgess) hails from (where else?) Liverpool. (Surprisingly, no one pops up with the name Eleanor Rigby.) Jude quits his shipyard job, heads for the U.S. and finds himself at Princeton, where he befriends Lucy’s smart, rebellious older brother, Max (Joe Anderson).
Unwilling to follow the blueprint laid out for him by his rigidly upper-crust parents, Max moves with Jude to New York, where they rent a room from foxy musician and mother hen Sadie (Dana Fuchs). Also joining the burgeoning bohemian enclave are the sexually confused Prudence (T.V. Carpio); soulful guitarist Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), who gets a dynamite entrance courtesy of Joe Cocker on “Come Together”; and Lucy, whose blossoming relationship with Jude forms the heart of the movie.
All this plays more compellingly (if not coherently) onscreen than it sounds on paper, thanks to a musically driven storytelling style that leaps from song to song, with occasional dialogue snippets serving as connective tissue. Whatever their reservations, viewers will be curious to see how Taymor (with song producers T-Bone Burnett, Elliot Goldenthal and Teese Gohl) adapts and reinterprets a classic repertoire.
If Taymor’s choices sometimes border on the obvious, they can also be weirdly arresting. Carpio’s lovely, quavering rendition of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” becomes an ode to unrequited lesbian longing; “Let It Be” is reimagined as a gospel-infused elegy for slain U.S. troops and victims of the 1967 Detroit riots; and “Because,” sung by multiple individuals writhing nude underwater, achieves a haunting, frozen-in-time lyricism.
Not all the numbers are equally inspired, and some early perfs, such as buddy anthem “With a Little Help From My Friends,” feel stranded between naturalism and artifice. Taymor is more assured in her bold strokes; her most intricately staged number, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” grimly surveys the war recruitment effort as Max and other unwilling conscripts are stripped, physically examined and expelled into the jungles of Vietnam.
As the war takes centerstage and contempo parallels loom large, Lucy’s increasingly radical activism forces a wedge between her and aspiring painter Jude. But the dramatic conception here is predictable and generic.
As if to compensate, the musical numbers become progressively more flamboyant and visually unhinged. A cameo by Bono as a sort of godfather among hippies (delivering a forceful cover of “I Am the Walrus”) shifts the movie into a hallucinatory realm, with a tie-dye color scheme that suggests scenes were shot during an acid trip with Baz Luhrmann. Viewers who like movies to reflect their out-of-body experiences will gladly inhale, but for others, the excess may seem off-putting. Call it “Flabby Road.”
The widely publicized clash between Taymor and Revolution Studios topper Joe Roth over final cut will be blamed by some for the production’s disjointed feel, though coherence doesn’t seem to have been a top priority from the get-go. With its truncated performances and their sometimes arbitrary placement within the narrative, “Across the Universe” rarely achieves the organic flow, the sense of characters expressing themselves through unimpeded song, exemplified by two very different recent musicals, “Dreamgirls” and “Once.”
Thesps acquit themselves admirably on both singing and acting fronts. Sturgess’ soft eyes, even softer voice and winning demeanor make this an auspicious leading-man debut, while Wood, who had no prior singing training, impresses with a soprano that matches her acting in emotional directness. Eddie Izzard and “Frida” star Salma Hayek have fleeting cameos.
Production elements are intensely stylized, with art direction and costumes delivering a gaudy approximation of ‘60s counterculture. Goldenthal, Taymor’s partner and frequent collaborator, also composed the score.