Originating with classics like Meet Me in St. Louis and Singin’ in the Rain, the “jukebox musical” takes popular songs and translates them into a narrative. The most recent example is Rock of Ages, which began on stage and was adapted for the movies last summer. These films have the benefit of using songs that people already know, but there’s the danger of taking us right out of the story. This is especially true when the songs are really well known. Idlewild is a jukebox musical, but only a few of its choices are that recognizable. Living in a different sphere is Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, which incorporates many of The Beatles’ most recognizable tunes into a fictional tale. Their songs are so prevalent in our culture that even people who don’t own any albums know the music. This familiarity raises a large obstacle in front of any attempts to shift them into a different medium.
Across the Universe – Directed by Julie Taymor; Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther, T.V. Carpio, and Spencer Liff
What's this story about?
In the mid-1960s, Jude (Jim Sturgess) leaves the shipyards of Liverpool and travels to the U.S. to locate his dad. After meeting Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and her brother Max (Joe Anderson), he decides to stick around. Their lives intersect amid the Vietnam War and chaos of that era. When Lucy’s boyfriend is killed, she begins a romance with Jude. They fall in love, but their relationship is threatened when she gets involved with militant revolutionaries. Everything plays out to The Beatles’ songs, which are sung by the characters throughout the movie. Starting with “Girl” and ending with “All You Need is Love”, the music comments on the action and the craziness in this changing country.
Beyond the songs, in what genre does this movie live?
This question is difficult because the music is such an essential part of this movie. It’s a period picture with romance and drama thrown in the mix, but it all comes together with the songs. Taymor presents a stylized version of the ‘60s that isn’t looking to provide historical authenticity. Instead, she’s creating a specific mood that incorporates the frenzied elements of that time. It’s an ambitious project that could easily go off the rails, and it works so much better than I ever expected. There’s so much life on the screen that it’s impossible not to get drawn into this world. The music changes with the times and becomes sadder as the country loses its innocence. It also corresponds to The Beatles’ movement away from pop gems and towards experimentation in their later albums.
What are the musical highlights?
There are so many wonderful moments where the characters and art direction complement the songs. There’s so much creativity on display from Taymor and the entire crew. An early highlight is “I’ve Just Seen a Face” after Jude’s first meeting with Lucy. It perfectly summarizes the idealized feelings at the start of any romance. There’s an epic sequence with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” as Max is summoned by the draft board. The giant Uncle Sam comes out of the poster and looms over him as the military does their evaluation. Near its middle, the song morphs into something different as the characters long for each other. When Jude confronts Lucy about her nasty friends, “Revolution” is the perfect choice and sells exactly what the problem is for her and those guys. The title track plays out during an anti-war demonstration and then morphs into “Helter Skelter” when the police intervene. The power of these songs is so clear and reminds us of The Beatles’ amazing talents.
Are the characters interesting when they aren't singing?
While the actors do well across the board, their characters are pretty limited. These aren’t complex individuals with subtle nuances that aren’t clear on first glance. Even so, Taymor doesn’t seem interested in that approach. She’s presenting an old-fashioned love story with the music as its guide. Jim Sturgess and Even Rachel Wood do a nice job showing the love and pain in their story, and that’s all we really need. It’s such a busy movie that trying to build up the characters might diminish its momentum. Martin Luther McCoy has a strong presence as JoJo, the Hendrix-like guitarist who lives with Max and Jude. He plays in a band with the Joplin-esque Sadie (Dana Fuchs), who finds that moving up in the music world isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There are plenty of memorable cameos, including Bono showing up to belt out “I Am the Walrus” during the LSD sequence. He’s followed by Eddie Izzard, who’s less successful as Mr. Kite during their bizarre trip. There are constant references to Beatles’ songs with character names and dialogue, and this might turn off some viewers. It works for me and fits with Taymor’s grand approach.
Do the art direction and cinematography equal the excitement of the genre?
I can’t rave enough about my enjoyment of this movie, and the main reasons are the cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie) and Mark Friedberg’s (The Darjeeling Limited) production design. There’s so much happening on screen beyond the main plot, and it brings such vitality to every moment. Taymor brings together this challenging project with grace, and we rarely see the strings behind each scene. I’m really interested in checking out her other work like Titus and The Tempest in the future. She takes a premise that could easily feel like a gimmick and creates something original out of the familiar songs. That’s a difficult achievement in any jukebox musical, and The Beatles’ popularity makes it nearly impossible. Their songs feel alive in this world and remind us once again about their incredible talents.
Next week, I’ll hit the road and join the tour with Hedwig and the Angry Inch.