Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Across the Universe

A movie that compresses 1960s history into two hours based around a love story and told as a musical using Beatles songs. Boy, that sounded like a risky proposition just for us as viewers investing two hours of time.

Still, the director is Julie Taymor, who created the Lion King stage show. She also directed Titus, which is the grossest Shakespeare play you never read, and Frida, which seemed like the Salma Hayek show (she produced and starred) but had a lot of Taymor's signature visual stylings.

So, the idea sounds terrible, the director is terrific. Oh, and she's married to Elliot Goldenthal, a composer, so maybe the music will be thought out.

The movie is called Across the Universe, and I quite liked it. I didn't love it, but it stuck with me, and I enjoyed the musical performances.

The young actor/singers were uniformly good. The cameos, by Joe Cocker, Bono and Eddie Izzard were hit or miss. Cocker was great, singing "Come Together." Izzard was okay, but I prefer the visual effects Taymor gets from puppets and choreography and his song was so CGI heavy that I didn't like it. And Bono was terrible. Worst vocal performance in the film, terrible acting and his whole section almost stalled the movie out, the way that Prince song did to the first Batman movie.

It is cheesy, especially when you meet all the characters: Jude, Max, Lucy, Prudence, Sadie -- the names say it all. But Taymor and Goldenthal are really smart, rearranging the songs so that it's not karaoke. In fact, most of the songs start a capella, like old movie musicals where a line is so emotional it has to be sung, and then the backing track comes in on the verse or chorus. Also, the arrangements are simple, for the most part, letting the viewer/listener supply a lot of the background to the music. And they play with the hooks. You know someone's going to sing "Hey Jude" at some point, but when Max gets to "Jude Jude-a Jude-y Jude-a Jude Jude!" it actually makes theatrical sense in context.

One visual highlight is "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" where a character is inducted into the army by Uncle Sam (I Want You) and asked to bring freedom in the form of the Statue of Liberty to Vietnam (She's So Heavy). Another is "Strawberry Fields" where Jude (an artist) starts pinning fruit to a board. Sounds weird, but it's really great.

The song that was stuck in my head after the movie was "I've Just Seen a Face" but I have to admit that no bowling alley on film--not here or in There Will Be Blood--will ever surpass The Big Lebowski and that's all I could think of when watching.

If you're a "purist" and hate all Beatles covers: avoid! If you appreciate Lennon/McCartney and Harrison songs as songcraft and are interested in how another artist can reconceive and recontextualize them, then I recommend it. I'm actually very curious about the soundtrack album for this film.

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