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.
Taymor 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.”
This 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.