Monday, October 22, 2007

Across the Universe

What a courageous, joyous experience Across the Universe is. Julie Taymor’s latest work is completely fearless, striving to be so many different things and somehow succeeding across the board. Across the Universe is a musical comprised entirely of Beatles songs, and it examines the 1960’s through the lens of that pivotal music. The Beatles are never mentioned by name in the film, but their cultural impact permeates every frame; Across the Universe invites you on a journey through some of America’s most turbulent times, with the music of The Beatles lighting the way.

Apart from the direct homage paid by the music, this film has more Beatles references than even the most avid fans could catch. Every character name and most lines of dialogue are lifted directly from Beatles lyrics. The story follows Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), two very different people who find each other in New York City in the early 1960’s. The film follows their relationship through the music, sex, drugs, and other cultural revolutions that defined the times.

The musical numbers throughout the film are as diverse as The Beatles’ music itself, ranging from very abstract to more traditional musical fare. Given the familiarity of the music, most of the numbers are surprisingly functional, meaning that the lyrics seem like dialogue written specifically for these scenes. Needless to say, that’s extremely clever storytelling. Watching the film, I was immediately struck by just how genuine this musical is. Not only do the songs flow very naturally, but the actors themselves seem to be truly singing in each moment. After doing a bit of research, I learned that most of the songs were indeed performed and recorded during the actual filming, as opposed to the typical technique of re-recording the songs and dubbing them back in during post-production. These musical performances are much more authentic, and it shows.

Director Julie Taymor has repeatedly proven herself a master artist, perhaps her most impressive achievement being the design of The Lion King on Broadway. One of her great accomplishments here is her intimate understanding of The Beatles’ music and how best to utilize it. Traditional numbers are interspersed with appropriately trippy sequences, serving as throwbacks to The Beatles’ films like A Hard Days Night and Yellow Submarine. Taymor’s pairings of songs with historical events flow seamlessly, such as “Let It Be” with the Civil Rights Movement, or “Strawberry Fields Forever” with the violence of Vietnam. It’s fun to be able to sing along to a brand new musical, but even better to see such familiar songs presented freshly.

Yet another welcome aspect: Across the Universe really knows that it’s in color. Not a moment goes by where the color is without purpose, and purposeful movies always stand out. Just as Citizen Kane (with its rich, dark contrasts) couldn’t possibly have worked in color, Across the Universe could never exist in black and white. Colors burst from the screen at every turn, from the red strawberries of “Strawberry Fields Forever” to the psychedelic haze of “I am the Walrus.” Whenever a film as visually lush as this one comes along, I’m reminded of just how few movies take advantage of their full visual potential. Movies have the power to transport us to beautifully imagined worlds, and for a visual medium, it’s surprising how many movies choose to play by our world’s rules.

This film, like all gutsy, adventurous works of art, will have plenty of antagonists, but I call Across the Universe an absolute triumph. One of the year’s very best films, it resonates with the joyful energy of passionate artists who fully believe in their work. The film takes risk after risk, and succeeds every time. For anyone who loves romance, musicals, the 1960’s, or most of all, The Beatles, Across the Universe offers one of the most memorable film experiences in recent years.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some drug content, nudity, sexuality, violence and language.

As should be evident by the list of content above, this film is not for children. However, the main concern isn’t just the sex, drugs, and language. Even though the film is mostly a ‘feel-good’ musical, the gravity of the material will simply be missed on younger viewers, especially elements about the Vietnam War. I would certainly not recommend it for viewers under 13, and even then, some history lessons about the period might be in order before and after the film.

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