Travel ACROSS THE UNIVERSE with Our Pick of the Week

Travel ACROSS THE UNIVERSE with Our Pick of the Week

by Sharon Mineo

I’m going to use the word “musical,” but please don’t stop reading; I want you to give my plucky little pick of the week a chance.

Now, I consider myself a Beatles fan — not of the rabid variety, but if we’re playing the question game and you ask “Beatles or Stones,” I’m gonna say Beatles. So between the music and the imagery, I was intrigued when I first saw the trailer for Across the Universe several years ago.

Directed by Julie Taymor and starring Evan Rachel Wood as the most recognizable name in an ensemble cast, Across the Universe, to quote Letterboxd, is a “musical based on The Beatles songbook and set in the 60s England, America, and Vietnam. The love story of Lucy and Jude is intertwined with the anti-war movement and social protests of the 60s.” Now, this is about as succinct and accurate a description as you can get. But there’s more to appreciate here.

Let’s go back to that divisive term, “musical.” I get why folks aren’t fans of the genre. From Hollywood’s Betty Grable heyday to latter-day Broadway, a lot of musicals are really just excuses for (often cheesy and uplifting) songs, as opposed to actual interesting stories that just happen to be enhanced by music. Sometimes the plots are so thin, it really doesn’t make sense to include them — all you really want is to see Betty dance and sing a wholesome tune while Charlotte Greenwood does impossibly high side kicks, and you’ll deal with whatever plot they’ve come up with this time to see it. So if this kind of schmaltz sickens you, I can understand why you’d pooh pooh the whole genre. More recent entries such as the Zellweger/Zeta-Jones Chicago and of course the Baz-tastic Moulin Rouge were fairly successful in bridging the gap to non-musical fans. But I’d argue that Across the Universe comes the closest to any film adaptation I’ve seen to melding song and story in such a way that it makes sense.

Look how wholesome we are!

The progress of the film embodies the progression of the 1960s from innocence to chaos. Rich kid siblings Max (Joe Anderson) and Lucy (Wood) Carrigan are doing what good kids do: Max attends a plush college and high schooler Lucy is getting dolled up for the big dance with her all-American boyfriend, who has enlisted to serve in Vietnam out of a sense of patriotic duty. Meanwhile in England, dock worker Jude (Jim Sturgess) is promising to write his girlfriend every day as he sets out to America to find the ex-GI father who doesn’t know he exists. This clean-cut section is populated with screaming-girl-worthy tunes such as Hold Me Tight, All My Lovin’, and It Won’t be Long — though even here there’s a hint of what’s to come, as cheerleader Prudence (T.V. Carpio) is singing I Want to Hold Your Hand to the (female) cheer captain and we meet Jo-Jo (Martin Luther) during the Detroit riots set to Let it Be.

This is what happens when you let Bono give you drugs, kids.

As a series of circumstances causes our group to converge on a seedy section of New York under the roof of landlord Sadie (Dana Fuchs), things change. Not only does the song selection progress to darker or more psychedelic compositions, but the visuals do too — the more drugs that are done, the more the war, riots, and activism become part of the characters’ lives, the more unique and (dare I say it) trippy the visuals become, with colorful costumes, animation, and non-realistic sequences that still push the story along. It’s the breakdown of a decade set to killer tunes in a way that (for the most part) enhances rather than detracts from the story. The few instances where the film does go astray are when you get a musical number that’s totally unnecessary and only there for the cameo and the weird set pieces — Eddie Izzard singing Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! is the most egregious example of this.

No. Just no.

But for the most part, it works. Are things sometimes a little too obvious, like Sadie and Jo-Jo obviously serving as our Joplin/Hendrix-esque stand-ins? Sure. Is it entirely devoid of musical misfires? No. Does the story wrap up just a little too neatly? Of course. Is it a polarizing film that people seem to either really love or really hate? Internet says yes. But overall, the sum is greater that its parts — Across the Universe is a unique and intriguing little musical that you won’t soon forget.

Love is all you need.

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