ACROSS THE UNIVERSE – Elliot Goldenthal
Original Review by Clark Douglas
Full disclosure: I love The Beatles. Also, I love Julie Taymor (if my wife or Elliot Goldenthal are reading, I only love her in the artistic sense). So, when I heard about Julie Taymor (“Titus”, “Frida”) was directing a musical centered around songs of The Beatles (Greatest Band Ever), I was pretty thrilled. Of course, as a big Beatles fan, I approached the film with a certain amount of caution, too: though I was likely to enjoy the movie more than the average person, I was also more likely to be disappointed by the songs if they turned out to be bad covers of the tunes I loved.
Beatles musicals of the past (most of which starred The Beatles) were giddy, silly, joyful affairs full of campy comedy and terrific music… unless you count “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, which was bad comedy and terrible music. Taymor’s approach to creating a musical centered around the songs is considerably different. She attempts to make her film intensely dramatic, and in doing so puts her attention a bit more on the later, more ambitious (and more drug-fueled) Beatles songs. The approach works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s certainly a very compelling idea.
The film’s first part is probably the weakest overall. This section introduces us to the predictably-named characters (Jude, Maxwell, Lucy, Sadie, Prudence, etc.). Jude (Jim Sturges) is the only lad from Liverpool here, he comes to America in the 1960’s and befriends the rowdy Maxwell (Joe Anderson). Max’s sister is Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a sweet girl who falls in love with Jude. They all stay with a singer named Sadie (Dana Fuchs) in a big apartment. Also in their club are guitar player JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy) and Prudence (T.V. Carpio).
The first act is the weakest because the dialogue scenes are often painfully banal. Sure, the music numbers are solid enough, but when no one is singing, the movie grinds to a halt. The dramatic scenes are merely filler between musical numbers, never really taking on a life of their own. As for the music though, it becomes clear that Taymor is interested in turning many of the songs upside down and revealing them for what they are (or for what she wants them to be). “I Want to Hold Your Hand” turns into an aching ballad of loneliness, and Joe Cocker turns up as a pimp who offers a gritty version of “Come Together”.
The second act is surely the strangest, and the most memorable. It begins with a musical piece that is probably the best scene in the film, as Maxwell is drafted into the army. A room full of Uncle Sam figures bellow “I want you! I want you so bad!” G.I. Joe-like army clones do a snappy waltz in time to John Lennon’s mournful guitar arpeggios, and a tortured group of newly-drafted soldiers carry the statue of liberty across the war-torn jungles of Vietnam, singing “She’s so Heavy” in agonized unison. It’s a ferocious piece of direction from Taymor, and she makes nearly as big an impact by turning “Let it Be” into a soul-stirring gospel number.
While Maxwell is killing people in Vietnam (not with a silver hammer), the rest of the gang is going on a real head trip. Bono shows up as a guru named Dr. Robert, and turns “I Am the Walrus” into a piece of confusing, cult-like propaganda that everyone pretends to understand. Dr. Robert takes our characters out to a strange place where they are greeted by the extremely bizarre Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard). Izzard doesn’t so much sing his tune as shout it while spewing off peculiar improvisations about blue people. It’s certainly the most visually eye-popping sequence in the film, and again, incredibly memorable.
The third act is the most emotionally stirring, as Lucy turns to extreme activism and Jude grows apart from her by simply being his introverted self. This part of the film offers a reasonably interesting perspective of the frustrating balance between going too far and not going far enough. Protest movements are a tricky business, and Taymor views these passionate, well-intentioned, and frequently foolish individuals with a great deal of sympathy and compassion. The dialogue scenes start to ring true here, and the musical numbers are particularly stirring. Despite the fact that the movie seems a little long, everything ends just a bit too abruptly for me.
The music in the film is generally successful because the arrangements and performances seem to be just right for each particular moment in the film (if not for the radio). There are exceptions, though. The moment when Jude sings “Revolution” should be an electric one, but Sturges’ atypically pathetic performance makes the moment seem much weaker. Also, Bono’s end credits version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” seems like a bit of a dud to end the movie on. Evan Rachel Wood’s excellent voice does well in most of the songs, but she can’t bring the amount of beauty of “Blackbird” that it requires. Even so, the bad is far outweighed by the good. Joe Anderson is aided by a special appearance from Salma Hayek in a fabulously searing version of “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther McCoy nearly burst off the screen as they turn “Oh, Darling!” into a fury-filled lover’s quarrel. 90% of the music works, and it quite frequently does more than just “work”.
Elliot Goldenthal has been absent from film music for quite some time, so it’s a little frustrating that his latest return gives him very little to do in terms of original score. Goldenthal tosses out twenty minutes or so of inventive score music that ranges from wacky dissonance to guitar-heavy ambience. It’s mostly smaller, ensemble-driven material that shows off Goldenthal at his most carefree and experimental. It’s a shame none of it was included on the soundtrack album. Goldenthal puts most of his work into doing song arrangements, the ever-popular T. Bone Burnett works on some of these as well. Goldenthal would seem to be the last person on earth someone would think of to do pop song arrangements, but considering that he is married to director Julie Taymor (and has done all of her previous films), it makes sense. He does a fine job, too… most of the songs with flaws have vocal problems, not instrumental ones.
I liked “Across the Universe”. It was a very enjoyable experience, and certain scenes rank as some of the strongest marriages of music and visuals I have seen this year. However, I confess to missing the simplicity of films like “Help!” and “A Hard Day’s Night”. In those movies, the Beatles got together, had a good time, goofed around, and sang some great songs whenever they felt like doing so, regardless of what was going on in the plot. Taymor’s serious-minded musical melodrama soars during many of the musical numbers, but most of the plot just seems to drag things down. Taymor tries too hard to make all the pieces fit, to make everything make sense. She’s put together a rather good movie, though it doesn’t reach the level of “Frida” or particularly “Titus”. Still, what are you going to do? Cut the movie, and the context of some of the best musical numbers is removed. Leave it as it is, and you’ve got dull spots to get through. Oh well. If the weak moments in the film are necessary in order to get us to the best moments in the film, I think they’re worth it. Recommended.
- All My Loving (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Jim Sturgess)
- I Want To Hold Your Hand (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by T.V. Carpio)
- It Won’t Be Long (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Evan Rachel Wood)
- I’ve Just Seen a Face (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Jim Sturgess)
- Let It Be (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Carol Woods)
- Come Together (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Joe Cocker)
- I Am the Walrus (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Bono And the Secret Machines)
- Something (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Jim Sturgess)
- Oh! Darling (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Dana Fuchs)
- Strawberry Fields Forever (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Jim Sturgess)
- Across the Universe (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Jim Sturgess)
- Helter Skelter (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Dana Fuchs)
- Happiness Is a Warm Gun (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Salma Hayek)
- Blackbird (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Evan Rachel Wood)
- Hey Jude (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Joe Anderson)
- Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds (written by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, performed by Bono)
Running Time: ## minutes ## seconds
Interscope/Universal B0009801-02 (2007)
Music composed and arranged by Elliot Goldenthal. Songs produced by Elliot Goldenthal, T-Bone Burnett and Matthias Gohl. Edited by Curtis Roush. Album produced by Julie Taymor, Elliot Goldenthal, T-Bone Burnett and Matthias Gohl.