Beatles haunt every frame of "Across the Universe"

by Eric Melin on October 3, 2007

in Print Reviews

A greatest hits album can span somebody’s entire career but it rarely paints a complete portrait of the artist.

Director Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe” is like a greatest hits album in more ways than one. Besides being a visually resplendent re-interpretation of Beatles songs, the film is that rare movie musical where you go in knowing all the songs and lyrics and none of the story. It plays like a Beatles hits album sung by young, fresh-faced good-looking actors on a brightly-colored Broadway set that is supposed to pass for New York City.

It would be an understatement to say that she has bit off more than she can chew. The banal script, by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, also plays like the greatest hits of the 1960s. More specifically, the movie is a highlight reel of the decade’s cultural touchstones—the Vietnam War, free love, the rise of LSD, assassinations, the civil rights movement, spiritual awakening, beat culture—without relaying any of their significance.

across the universe wood andersonTaymor wants to rely on the lyrics for that, but rather than serving as a libretto, the Beatles songs just feel uncomfortably forced into a cliched story that veers into silly parody at every other turn. Things begin promisingly, as two bands play different versions of “Hold Me Tight,” one at a dreamy prom in America, and another in the dingy basement of the Cavern Club in Liverpool. (Although the appearance of a Beatles doppelganger band with no other mention of them in the entire film is just weird.)

Jim Sturgess is a Liverpudlian dock worker named Jude (yes, they are all named after Beatles songs) who leaves the working class grind and comes to America, falling in with college dropout Max (played by Joe Anderson with no silver hammer anywhere to be found) and Evan Rachel Wood, who plays his younger sister Lucy (whose song thankfully does not come until the closing credits).

A Janis Joplin knock-off not coincidentally named Sadie (Dana Fuchs) becomes their landlord and her guitar player JoJo (Martin Luther) travels to New York from the rough streets of Detroit. Their annoying subplot mirrors Joplin’s firing of her band, with JoJo becoming more comfortable as a frontman, a la Jimi Hendrix.

Deeply personal and culturally relevant statements from John, Paul and George become trite little ditties that accompany the pretty characters’ lives, with various degrees of relevance. “Dear Prudence/won’t you come out to play” is now sung by three friends trying to convince a depressed lesbian (named Prudence) to come out of the closet—literally. When she does leave the actual closet, the walls fade away and the apartment turns into the bluest sky as Jude, Lucy, and Max sing “Look around, around.”

across the universe i want you she's so heavy statue of libertyThis is one of many scenes where Taymor’s surreal palette takes over and the songs become guideposts for trippy music videos. At least a couple sequences feature a potent combination of cleverness and visual flair, like “I Want You/She’s So Heavy,” which accompanies Max’s unwilling entry into the armed forces. The first part features a giant, menacing Uncle Sam singing directly to him, while the second half of the song has U.S. soldiers carrying the weight of the Statue of Liberty on their backs through the Vietnamese jungle.

Other songs do not fare as well, such as a cameo from Bono as Dr. Robert (a Ken Kesey/Timothy Leary/Neal Cassady amalgam named after another Beatles song), who tries in vain tries to suppress his Irish accent while singing a bland version of “I Am the Walrus” during a book promotion/happening. The scene may have been meant to poke lighthearted fun at ’60s counterculture, but it comes off a little mean-spirited and a lot corny.

When “Across the Universe” isn’t reducing important events to colorful backdrops, it is shockingly literal. “Come Together” features a welcome walk-on by Joe Cocker (whose version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” was a huge hit in 1969), but any excitement brought on by his appearance is gone when three prostitutes saunter into the back of his pimp’s convertible on cue as he sings “one and one and one make three.”

I understand that in order to tell the story this way, Taymor had to leave any mention of the Beatles out of the movie. But the group are so tied into the youth culture of this time period that it is increasingly strange to have their words illustrate the film, and then have no mention of them at all. This points to the bigger complications of a pedestrian love story that generates no sparks and adds up to nothing. All the stylistic flourishes in the world cannot cover up a screenplay that works better as a game to guess which song will accompany which cheesy generalization next.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers and regular critic for KCTV5. He’s a member of the BFCA, VP of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also the current 2013 Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 49 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alan Rapp October 8, 2007 at 10:21 pm

I couldn’t disagree with you more. Aside from Bono and Izzard’s numbers everything worked for me. A simple love story balanced with vivid images and great music! What more could you want? In an industry mass producing canned comedies and bland dramas this shines as an example of what can be done! A magical experience, though to be fair not for everyone (and I guess not for you) as it seems to polarize viewers into camps of Love and Hate (seriously dude, all you need is love!). You can read my review on RazorFine.

Reply

2 Alan Rapp October 8, 2007 at 10:21 pm

I couldn’t disagree with you more. Aside from Bono and Izzard’s numbers everything worked for me. A simple love story balanced with vivid images and great music! What more could you want? In an industry mass producing canned comedies and bland dramas this shines as an example of what can be done! A magical experience, though to be fair not for everyone (and I guess not for you) as it seems to polarize viewers into camps of Love and Hate (seriously dude, all you need is love!). You can read my review on RazorFine.

Reply

3 Alan Rapp October 8, 2007 at 10:21 pm

I couldn’t disagree with you more. Aside from Bono and Izzard’s numbers everything worked for me. A simple love story balanced with vivid images and great music! What more could you want? In an industry mass producing canned comedies and bland dramas this shines as an example of what can be done! A magical experience, though to be fair not for everyone (and I guess not for you) as it seems to polarize viewers into camps of Love and Hate (seriously dude, all you need is love!). You can read my review on RazorFine.

Reply

4 Karl Prescott October 10, 2007 at 10:42 am

With response to the ‘Beatles doppelganger band’, I was involved in casting the band for the Cavern Scene and they were only ever intended to be a ‘nod’ to The Beatles and not the guys themseleves. We looked at Beatles look alikes and they were all rejected by Julie. Lennons Magic Elbow were first seen by myself performing during Beatles Week 2005 in Liverpool.

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5 Karl Prescott October 10, 2007 at 10:42 am

With response to the ‘Beatles doppelganger band’, I was involved in casting the band for the Cavern Scene and they were only ever intended to be a ‘nod’ to The Beatles and not the guys themseleves. We looked at Beatles look alikes and they were all rejected by Julie. Lennons Magic Elbow were first seen by myself performing during Beatles Week 2005 in Liverpool.

Reply

6 Karl Prescott October 10, 2007 at 10:42 am

With response to the ‘Beatles doppelganger band’, I was involved in casting the band for the Cavern Scene and they were only ever intended to be a ‘nod’ to The Beatles and not the guys themseleves. We looked at Beatles look alikes and they were all rejected by Julie. Lennons Magic Elbow were first seen by myself performing during Beatles Week 2005 in Liverpool.

Reply

7 Eric Melin October 10, 2007 at 11:59 am

Karl-

Thanks for the clarification on the director’s intent. I’m sure I projected ‘look-alike’ status upon them because they were young, playing in the Cavern Club, and singing a Beatles song. It is interesting to note that Ms. Taymor specifically tried to steer away from that, though. I appreciate your insight!

Reply

8 Eric Melin October 10, 2007 at 11:59 am

Karl-

Thanks for the clarification on the director’s intent. I’m sure I projected ‘look-alike’ status upon them because they were young, playing in the Cavern Club, and singing a Beatles song. It is interesting to note that Ms. Taymor specifically tried to steer away from that, though. I appreciate your insight!

Reply

9 Eric Melin October 10, 2007 at 11:59 am

Karl-

Thanks for the clarification on the director’s intent. I’m sure I projected ‘look-alike’ status upon them because they were young, playing in the Cavern Club, and singing a Beatles song. It is interesting to note that Ms. Taymor specifically tried to steer away from that, though. I appreciate your insight!

Reply

10 Rae December 26, 2007 at 8:21 pm

“college dropout Max (played by Joe Anderson with no silver hammer anywhere to be found) ”

Actually, he IS shown with a silver hammer in one scene. I don’t remember what he was doing, though. It was pointed out to me when I saw it in the theatre. Just sayin’.

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11 Rae December 26, 2007 at 8:21 pm

“college dropout Max (played by Joe Anderson with no silver hammer anywhere to be found) ”

Actually, he IS shown with a silver hammer in one scene. I don’t remember what he was doing, though. It was pointed out to me when I saw it in the theatre. Just sayin’.

Reply

12 Rae December 26, 2007 at 8:21 pm

“college dropout Max (played by Joe Anderson with no silver hammer anywhere to be found) ”

Actually, he IS shown with a silver hammer in one scene. I don’t remember what he was doing, though. It was pointed out to me when I saw it in the theatre. Just sayin’.

Reply

13 Eric Melin December 26, 2007 at 9:16 pm

Rae- Wow. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me, but what I was trying to do there was give the film credit for NOT going somewhere obvious, and it turns out they did anyway. Nice catch.

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14 Eric Melin December 26, 2007 at 9:16 pm

Rae- Wow. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me, but what I was trying to do there was give the film credit for NOT going somewhere obvious, and it turns out they did anyway. Nice catch.

Reply

15 Eric Melin December 26, 2007 at 9:16 pm

Rae- Wow. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me, but what I was trying to do there was give the film credit for NOT going somewhere obvious, and it turns out they did anyway. Nice catch.

Reply

16 Honey February 12, 2008 at 3:26 pm

Uhm I just so happened to really digg this movie! I loved every minute of it! The beatles songs were really well covered….oh and Jude is sexy….

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17 Honey February 12, 2008 at 3:26 pm

Uhm I just so happened to really digg this movie! I loved every minute of it! The beatles songs were really well covered….oh and Jude is sexy….

Reply

18 Honey February 12, 2008 at 3:26 pm

Uhm I just so happened to really digg this movie! I loved every minute of it! The beatles songs were really well covered….oh and Jude is sexy….

Reply

19 Michelle March 27, 2008 at 12:59 pm

the band that way playing in the cavern club – are they an actual band? from what i heard of the lead singers voice, i liked it and i’d love to hear more.

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20 Michelle March 27, 2008 at 12:59 pm

the band that way playing in the cavern club – are they an actual band? from what i heard of the lead singers voice, i liked it and i’d love to hear more.

Reply

21 Michelle March 27, 2008 at 12:59 pm

the band that way playing in the cavern club – are they an actual band? from what i heard of the lead singers voice, i liked it and i’d love to hear more.

Reply

22 Fern August 10, 2008 at 7:01 pm

I can’t say I fully agree with this. I very much enjoyed the film and have been wanting to watch it again since it ended. I didn’t feel the songs were forced; I actually was almost impressed at the fact that a story could be made using just a few of their songs. I can’t say I was surprised though.

I liked that Jojo and Sadie’s lives mirrored other figures of the same time. It showed that The Beatles may have been very influential but so were others.

I thought Bono did well for I am the Walrus. And the fact that he is Irish A – a neighbouring country and B – the country from which the name Lennon had its beginnings in Ireland(Ó Leannain if you’re wondering), is an added bonus!

I wouldn’t say the movie is “shockingly” literal, it just is. That seems to have been part of the point in making this film almost fully based on anything relating to the Beatles.

As for the lack of mention of the band, wouldn’t every detail used in the film be mention in itself?

I hope this doesn’t seem rude, I just wanted to voice my opinion…

Reply

23 Fern August 10, 2008 at 7:01 pm

I can’t say I fully agree with this. I very much enjoyed the film and have been wanting to watch it again since it ended. I didn’t feel the songs were forced; I actually was almost impressed at the fact that a story could be made using just a few of their songs. I can’t say I was surprised though.

I liked that Jojo and Sadie’s lives mirrored other figures of the same time. It showed that The Beatles may have been very influential but so were others.

I thought Bono did well for I am the Walrus. And the fact that he is Irish A – a neighbouring country and B – the country from which the name Lennon had its beginnings in Ireland(Ó Leannain if you’re wondering), is an added bonus!

I wouldn’t say the movie is “shockingly” literal, it just is. That seems to have been part of the point in making this film almost fully based on anything relating to the Beatles.

As for the lack of mention of the band, wouldn’t every detail used in the film be mention in itself?

I hope this doesn’t seem rude, I just wanted to voice my opinion…

Reply

24 Fern August 10, 2008 at 7:01 pm

I can’t say I fully agree with this. I very much enjoyed the film and have been wanting to watch it again since it ended. I didn’t feel the songs were forced; I actually was almost impressed at the fact that a story could be made using just a few of their songs. I can’t say I was surprised though.

I liked that Jojo and Sadie’s lives mirrored other figures of the same time. It showed that The Beatles may have been very influential but so were others.

I thought Bono did well for I am the Walrus. And the fact that he is Irish A – a neighbouring country and B – the country from which the name Lennon had its beginnings in Ireland(Ó Leannain if you’re wondering), is an added bonus!

I wouldn’t say the movie is “shockingly” literal, it just is. That seems to have been part of the point in making this film almost fully based on anything relating to the Beatles.

As for the lack of mention of the band, wouldn’t every detail used in the film be mention in itself?

I hope this doesn’t seem rude, I just wanted to voice my opinion…

Reply

25 Eric Melin August 10, 2008 at 11:25 pm

Not rude at all. Healthy discussion is what its all about. I’d just like to see a movie that uses Beatles songs and maybe does something different with them. “Across” was good for a couple of interesting music videos, and maybe would be a good way to get very young kids into the group’s music, but its just too simplistic to be much else.

Reply

26 Eric Melin August 10, 2008 at 11:25 pm

Not rude at all. Healthy discussion is what its all about. I’d just like to see a movie that uses Beatles songs and maybe does something different with them. “Across” was good for a couple of interesting music videos, and maybe would be a good way to get very young kids into the group’s music, but its just too simplistic to be much else.

Reply

27 Eric Melin August 10, 2008 at 11:25 pm

Not rude at all. Healthy discussion is what its all about. I’d just like to see a movie that uses Beatles songs and maybe does something different with them. “Across” was good for a couple of interesting music videos, and maybe would be a good way to get very young kids into the group’s music, but its just too simplistic to be much else.

Reply

28 Eric Melin August 10, 2008 at 11:27 pm

Michelle-
From Karl Prescott’s earlier post (#2), it looks like that band was called Lennon’s Magic Elbow.

Reply

29 Eric Melin August 10, 2008 at 11:27 pm

Michelle-
From Karl Prescott’s earlier post (#2), it looks like that band was called Lennon’s Magic Elbow.

Reply

30 Eric Melin August 10, 2008 at 11:27 pm

Michelle-
From Karl Prescott’s earlier post (#2), it looks like that band was called Lennon’s Magic Elbow.

Reply

31 Tyler September 29, 2008 at 2:30 pm

I have not been able to refuse a chance to sit down and just enjoy this movie. I was brought up on the Beatles and they are by far my faviorite group. With that being said, I believe that if i had never heard Let It Be before i sat down and watched this film that i would be moved. Needless to say i was moved anyway but the point is that this movie took these amazing songs and acted them out on stage. To see the songs was to go to a place fans have not really been. Despite moderate acting, this movie was great. In the end it was just about the music though, and that will sufice for me.

Reply

32 Tyler September 29, 2008 at 2:30 pm

I have not been able to refuse a chance to sit down and just enjoy this movie. I was brought up on the Beatles and they are by far my faviorite group. With that being said, I believe that if i had never heard Let It Be before i sat down and watched this film that i would be moved. Needless to say i was moved anyway but the point is that this movie took these amazing songs and acted them out on stage. To see the songs was to go to a place fans have not really been. Despite moderate acting, this movie was great. In the end it was just about the music though, and that will sufice for me.

Reply

33 Tyler September 29, 2008 at 2:30 pm

I have not been able to refuse a chance to sit down and just enjoy this movie. I was brought up on the Beatles and they are by far my faviorite group. With that being said, I believe that if i had never heard Let It Be before i sat down and watched this film that i would be moved. Needless to say i was moved anyway but the point is that this movie took these amazing songs and acted them out on stage. To see the songs was to go to a place fans have not really been. Despite moderate acting, this movie was great. In the end it was just about the music though, and that will sufice for me.

Reply

34 Fran May 11, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Hey, very nice blog!! I have bookmarked your site and have taken the feeds also.

Reply

35 Fran May 11, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Hey, very nice blog!! I have bookmarked your site and have taken the feeds also.

Reply

36 Fran May 11, 2009 at 3:59 pm

Hey, very nice blog!! I have bookmarked your site and have taken the feeds also.

Reply

37 Rae (a differnt one) May 30, 2009 at 4:25 am

I LOVED the movie – it didn’t try to out-Beatles the Beatles or make it about the Beatles, it merely let the Beatles be the oxygen that breathed life into it. As a major beatles fan I was extremely nervous about how the songs would be arranged, but I was more than pleasantly surprised and delighted to find them delivered simply and yes, woven into a story not intended by their authors, but for my kids a story that provoked huge conversations about the 60s and the truth of that era. How great is that – give the movie a break. I don’t believe it was trying to be anythig other than it was – I was entertained and enough so to purchase the DVD – everyone i have shared it with has loved it! It doen’t need to be analysed, just enjoyed!

Reply

38 Rae (a differnt one) May 30, 2009 at 4:25 am

I LOVED the movie – it didn’t try to out-Beatles the Beatles or make it about the Beatles, it merely let the Beatles be the oxygen that breathed life into it. As a major beatles fan I was extremely nervous about how the songs would be arranged, but I was more than pleasantly surprised and delighted to find them delivered simply and yes, woven into a story not intended by their authors, but for my kids a story that provoked huge conversations about the 60s and the truth of that era. How great is that – give the movie a break. I don’t believe it was trying to be anythig other than it was – I was entertained and enough so to purchase the DVD – everyone i have shared it with has loved it! It doen’t need to be analysed, just enjoyed!

Reply

39 Rae (a differnt one) May 30, 2009 at 4:25 am

I LOVED the movie – it didn’t try to out-Beatles the Beatles or make it about the Beatles, it merely let the Beatles be the oxygen that breathed life into it. As a major beatles fan I was extremely nervous about how the songs would be arranged, but I was more than pleasantly surprised and delighted to find them delivered simply and yes, woven into a story not intended by their authors, but for my kids a story that provoked huge conversations about the 60s and the truth of that era. How great is that – give the movie a break. I don’t believe it was trying to be anythig other than it was – I was entertained and enough so to purchase the DVD – everyone i have shared it with has loved it! It doen’t need to be analysed, just enjoyed!

Reply

40 jim fan June 15, 2009 at 12:24 am

Loved the movie. Unfortunately I didn’t see it until it came out on video. My bad luck. Loved all the songs. Loved all the names of the characters. Loved Jim Sturgess and Joe Andersons characters. The singing was great the story was great. And as usual the Director was great on the visual. Jim and Evan do some of the songs better than the originals. I loved the last scene. It was perfect being it was the last time the Beatles played in public…..I bought the soundtrack. Keep em coming Julie….

Reply

41 jim fan June 15, 2009 at 12:24 am

Loved the movie. Unfortunately I didn’t see it until it came out on video. My bad luck. Loved all the songs. Loved all the names of the characters. Loved Jim Sturgess and Joe Andersons characters. The singing was great the story was great. And as usual the Director was great on the visual. Jim and Evan do some of the songs better than the originals. I loved the last scene. It was perfect being it was the last time the Beatles played in public…..I bought the soundtrack. Keep em coming Julie….

Reply

42 jim fan June 15, 2009 at 12:24 am

Loved the movie. Unfortunately I didn’t see it until it came out on video. My bad luck. Loved all the songs. Loved all the names of the characters. Loved Jim Sturgess and Joe Andersons characters. The singing was great the story was great. And as usual the Director was great on the visual. Jim and Evan do some of the songs better than the originals. I loved the last scene. It was perfect being it was the last time the Beatles played in public…..I bought the soundtrack. Keep em coming Julie….

Reply

43 jim December 29, 2009 at 12:21 am

Could Maxwell’s silver hammer be the golf club that came down on Jude’s golf tee holding head? It is what it is. Would you prefer Steve Martin as Maxwell again? If the film and soundtrack can keep my 16 year old daughter and 66 year old mother smiling and singing,it works for me.

Reply

44 jim December 29, 2009 at 12:21 am

Could Maxwell’s silver hammer be the golf club that came down on Jude’s golf tee holding head? It is what it is. Would you prefer Steve Martin as Maxwell again? If the film and soundtrack can keep my 16 year old daughter and 66 year old mother smiling and singing,it works for me.

Reply

45 jim December 29, 2009 at 12:21 am

Could Maxwell’s silver hammer be the golf club that came down on Jude’s golf tee holding head? It is what it is. Would you prefer Steve Martin as Maxwell again? If the film and soundtrack can keep my 16 year old daughter and 66 year old mother smiling and singing,it works for me.

Reply

46 jim December 29, 2009 at 1:24 am

Also, for Beatles purists: which version do you prefer, the original or Lennon’s throat shredding version of Twist and Shout? I truly doubt they would prefer to be to thought of as museum pieces any more than Shakespeare would (knowing that his words would still be performed nearly 500 years later) insist that his plays be performed by an all male cast on a small wooden stage in Cheapside. John Lennon himself said he would be amazed if the Beatles lasted 10 years. Its been nearly 50 and because their work is so good, there will be reinventions and inspirations and reinterpretations for generations to come. I was about to say 500 years, but because we (collectively) still do not get the “all you need is love” part, that may be optimistic. And tell me, who is on the music scene now that can hold a candle to the breath and depth of the Beatles? Are all the songs perfect? No. Were they always perfect human beings? No. Were their movies all good? Don’t get me started. Is this film flawless? No. Could you make a better one? I can’t.

Reply

47 jim December 29, 2009 at 1:24 am

Also, for Beatles purists: which version do you prefer, the original or Lennon’s throat shredding version of Twist and Shout? I truly doubt they would prefer to be to thought of as museum pieces any more than Shakespeare would (knowing that his words would still be performed nearly 500 years later) insist that his plays be performed by an all male cast on a small wooden stage in Cheapside. John Lennon himself said he would be amazed if the Beatles lasted 10 years. Its been nearly 50 and because their work is so good, there will be reinventions and inspirations and reinterpretations for generations to come. I was about to say 500 years, but because we (collectively) still do not get the “all you need is love” part, that may be optimistic. And tell me, who is on the music scene now that can hold a candle to the breath and depth of the Beatles? Are all the songs perfect? No. Were they always perfect human beings? No. Were their movies all good? Don’t get me started. Is this film flawless? No. Could you make a better one? I can’t.

Reply

48 jim December 29, 2009 at 1:24 am

Also, for Beatles purists: which version do you prefer, the original or Lennon’s throat shredding version of Twist and Shout? I truly doubt they would prefer to be to thought of as museum pieces any more than Shakespeare would (knowing that his words would still be performed nearly 500 years later) insist that his plays be performed by an all male cast on a small wooden stage in Cheapside. John Lennon himself said he would be amazed if the Beatles lasted 10 years. Its been nearly 50 and because their work is so good, there will be reinventions and inspirations and reinterpretations for generations to come. I was about to say 500 years, but because we (collectively) still do not get the “all you need is love” part, that may be optimistic. And tell me, who is on the music scene now that can hold a candle to the breath and depth of the Beatles? Are all the songs perfect? No. Were they always perfect human beings? No. Were their movies all good? Don’t get me started. Is this film flawless? No. Could you make a better one? I can’t.

Reply

49 Steve October 23, 2010 at 6:35 am

Maxwell’s silver hammer was when he was ‘fixing’ the fan! Come on people, you call yourself fair dinkum reviewers but you neglect important parts of the movie! Pay attention or don’t bother reviewing at all!!

Reply

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