Fri 8 Feb 2008
Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s “Across the Universe” we go …
It’s strange that sometimes you forget how vital music can be to encapsulating life. Most of us will always remember songs that marked key moments, people and times in our lives – whether that’s an ex who’ll always have our heart, high school, or a sunny day on vacation.
That feeling shines through in writer/director Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe”. The film is centered on the 1960s, dealing primarily with anti-Vietnam protests and a core group of people who have formed their own makeshift family via the free love movement in New York City.
Telling that story is not done in typical fashion however, as Taymor has taken her expertise in musical theatre and crafted the film around Beatles songs. The tunes have been reworked and rerecorded using the actors voices to bring this turbulent time in America’s history to life.
I will readily admit that I’ve never been much of a Beatles fan. Sure, many of their tunes have been covered by other artists and exposed me to their lyricality but as far as actually wanting to listen to The Beatles … I can’t say I care one way or the other.
That being said, I very much enjoyed the renditions presented in the film and the cast performed them beautifully. Starring in the film are Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood. Not knowing Sturgess, I can’t say I’m too surprised that he can sing – that’s why he was cast. The other cast members are also relatively unknown to me (short of some very recognizable side characters) and their musical talents are on full display here.
Evan Rachel Wood, on the other hand, is well known to me as one of the more promising actresses in the industry today. Here, her singing voice is nothing short of amazing and I think I’ll be looking for the soundtrack so I can hear her sing whenever I want, regardless of my proximity to a DVD player.
To go along with the excellent musical performances, the acting is also done quite well. There’s a fine line at work in the film, as much of it feels like a stage production and that engenders an unnatural quality to the scenes. Like watching a musical live, it’s up to the audience to suspend their disbelief and allow the often surreal production design to become reality.
To that end, Taymor’s reputation (she brought “The Lion King” to Broadway) for creating fantastic set pieces and a unique artistic flair to her projects is well deserved. While much of the film is set in standard city landscapes, a good portion of the musical numbers and nearly all of the military scenes are done with a surrealistic slant.
While this also toes (and sometimes crosses) the line into disjointed reality, there’s a beauty and symbolism in it all that works in the context of the film. And as alluded to earlier, the excellent musical renditions of the Beatles’ songs marries wonderfully with the look and style on display.
Since this is a musical, there are some small leaps in time and some of the character development happens over the course of a song, rather than over a realistic period of time. Also, the feeling that you’re watching a stage show rather than a feature film is rather prevalent. However, assuming you are going into this film with an appreciation for musicals, this won’t present too much of a problem.
Really the only major drawback I had with the film was that in being constrained to using Beatles’ songs to tell the story, Taymor’s ability to keep a consistent pace to the film was hampered. About halfway through, I was hoping to get to the end, and while the end scenes are done well and satisfied my appetite, it still feels like a song or two could have been cut to keep the film flowing a bit more smoothly.
Also, it’s far from shocking that the two leads (Sturgess and Wood) play Jude and Lucy and there’s something a little hokey as you wait and wait for “Hey Jude” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. I realize that’s how it’s got to be when you undertake a project like this and it’s not that the lyrics don’t match with the film’s content … it just feels a little cheesy and I had to calm my inner cynic a little.
Also, my instinct to cringe at Bono these days (though I like U2) and Eddie Izzard’s super-trippy cameo made it a conflicting mix of emotions during their scenes that felt like more of a disconnect from the rest of the film for the sake of including their likenesses and songs rather than as a benefit to the overall composition.
In the end, deciding to see this film really boils down to your commitment to sparkle motion … wait, that’s not right … it depends on your love of musicals and the Beatles’ music catalog. I think having an appreciation for either element will be enough to make this worthy of a viewing now that it’s hit the DVD shelves. I’m giving “Across the Universe” a strong 3 out of 5. It would have earned another point if the pacing problems could have been addressed better but this is a film I’ll be re-watching from time to time to enjoy the music and the art design.
Now, if I could only get Ms. Wood to hold my hand …