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While striving to evoke the sweep of events from “Love Me Do” to “Let It Be,” Across the Universe’s script is an exceedingly modest yarn, credited to Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (who together wrote the screenplays for The Commitments and Flushed Away). Working-class Liverpudlian Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels to the United States in search of his father, a former GI who skipped out on his pregnant British girlfriend during World War II. Meeting dad is a disappointment, but seconds later Jude’s life is transformed when he encounters Max (Joe Anderson), a mischievous upscale college student. Max takes Jude home for Thanksgiving dinner, and the Brit soon meets the love of his life, Max’s younger sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).
Later, Jude and Max move to Greenwich Village, where they bunk with aspiring singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and are quickly joined by Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), an acid-blues guitarist, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), an Asian-American lesbian. After her boyfriend dies in Vietnam, Lucy follows the guys to New York and soon shares Jude’s bed. Their romance is the crux of the tale, but the plot also involves Max’s stint in Nam, Sadie and Jo-Jo’s betrayal by a music-biz mogul, and brief visits with two psychedelic gurus, Dr. Robert (Bono) and Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard). We also see riots in Detroit and at Columbia University, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and the homemade-bomb mishap of an SDS splinter group—but none of those things matter as much as Jude and Lucy’s breakup and possible reconciliation.
The movie establishes its ’60s setting mostly through sound, color, and making the characters stand-ins for the decade’s icons: Though some Beatles look-alikes rate only a brief Cavern Club appearance, Sadie is Janis Joplin, Jo-Jo is Jimi Hendrix, their label, Strawberry Jam, is Apple Corps, Dr. Robert and Mr. Kite are Neal Cassady and Timothy Leary—and the walrus was Paul. Taymor, who directed the Broadway version of The Lion King, stuffs the movie with stage business: Mr. Kite’s entourage includes giant puppets in the style of the leftist Bread and Puppet Theater, Butoh dancers undulate in the surf as “Helter Skelter” duels with “Across the Universe,” and some of Stomp’s bin-bashers thump as Jude strides through Liverpool.
The film’s major set pieces look like things the director dreams of doing onstage. Max’s draft-board ordeal, choreographed to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” includes a sequence in which new recruits in their underwear carry the Statue of Liberty on their shoulders; upon his return from the Big Muddy, Max finds himself in an acid-trip VA hospital where a bishop gyrates to “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and five identical nurses—all played by Salma Hayek, star of the Taymor-directed Frida—shimmy to the “shoot shoot” chorus.
The remade Beatles standards—produced by Elliot Goldenthal, Teese Gohl, and T Bone Burnett—sound OK, though the new arrangements are more flashy and less ingenious than the originals. Wisely, Taymor cast performers who could sing, and in a natural, rock-oriented mode; Dana Fuchs is a belter, but the production is blessedly free of Broadway-style vocalese. The director even recorded the singing live wherever possible, to avoid the awkward detachment of lip-synced vocals. Interestingly, the 33 songs draw mostly from the Fab Four’s early beat-group and later psychedelic material. The 1965n66 period is largely ignored, perhaps because the music the Beatles made in those years is too rich for the movie’s simplistic interpretations. It’s also possible that, say, “Ticket to Ride” or “She Said She Said” were lost in the approximately 40 minutes of cuts Taymor was forced to make, trimming the film down to about 130 minutes. Those cuts might explain why some of the characters, notably Prudence, have such sketchy roles.
Yet it’s unlikely that a longer version would be any better. Exuberantly staged and colorfully rendered—the cinematographer is Amélie’s Bruno Delbonnel—the movie offers much for the eye and ear but almost nothing for the brain. At bottom, it’s a Hollywood young-love story, keyed to the relationship between two pretty people whose rapport is assumed rather than demonstrated. Love may be all you need, but Across the Universe doesn’t prove that Jude and Lucy adore each other before asking viewers to follow the kids’ affair through two hours of crudely thematic theatricality.