More than anything else, “Across the Universe” is a testament to the power of John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s songwriting skills. The film is a full-fledged musical, structured in the classic boy-meets-girl style, with all the lyrics coming from Beatles songs. What’s extraordinary is that the words to these 40-year-old pop songs fit perfectly, no alterations necessary. The melodies, so beautiful in their effortless complexity, are rendered even more potent when they’re put into the context of a love story. “All you need is love” always just seemed like a nice sentiment. Now it feels like an unassailable truth.
Yet despite being peppered with Beatles allusions both subtle and obvious, the film is not just a frivolous tribute to the Fab Four. It stands on its own as a uniquely artistic view of young love in the turbulent 1960s, with songs from that era that happen to fit the story and that also happen to have been written by Lennon and McCartney (and, OK, sometimes Harrison and Starr, too). It also benefits from director Julie Taymor’s imagination and vision, which would have ensured a memorable, eye-catching product regardless of who provided the soundtrack.
Like the Beatles themselves, the film starts in the pubs of Liverpool and ends with a rooftop performance. In another sublime parallel, the songs and situations start simple and grow increasingly psychedelic and metaphor-heavy as the film progresses, with some parts halfway through that are completely whacked-out.
The boy in our story is Jude (Jim Sturgess), a young English working-class lad who shows up at Princeton in the mid-1960s in search of his father. On campus he meets Max (Joe Anderson), a privileged but roguish youth who takes Jude home with him for Thanksgiving — and that’s where Jude meets Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). She’s Max’s sister, a high school senior whose boyfriend is fighting in Vietnam. Jude and Lucy like each other, and when Max drops out of school and moves to New York to be a full-time slacker, Jude in tow, Lucy comes to stay with them.
Jude and Max share an apartment with a host of bohemian artists, including Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a rock singer, and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitarist. Across the way is Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who is introduced to the group when she flees an abusive boyfriend by coming in through the bathroom window.
The story takes us deep into the Vietnam era, with Lucy caught up in the anti-war movement while Jude just wants to draw and paint and leave the revolution to someone else. Max gets drafted, and the sequence at the induction office is one of the film’s surreal highlights: Huge Uncle Sam posters come to life, singing “I want you, I want you so bad” while square-jawed officers with creepy prosthetic faces do some heavily choreographed poking and prodding of the new draftees. It’s a nightmare come alive, and a stylish representation of Max’s terrified thoughts.
Taymor, whose Broadway version of “The Lion King” made her artistic talents famous, mostly keeps “Across the Universe” interesting without being overtly weird. Mostly. Bit by bit, the film becomes more artsy and strange, though never in a way that’s off-putting. Still, it’s not always necessary. An interlude with a hippie guru (U2’s Bono) and a freakish circus ringleader named Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard) doesn’t add much to the story apart from flavoring, and the characters of Prudence, Sadie, and JoJo never amount to anything substantial.
In other instances, Taymor’s exuberance (along with Daniel Ezralow’s choreography) leads to dazzling sights like a squad of businessmen with briefcases dancing across the sidewalks while a bum played by Joe Cocker sings “Come Together.”
But most of the singing is more simple and less theatrical than that. The bulk of the Beatles’ catalog consists of love songs, after all, and this is essentially a love story. The normal practice for movie musicals is to pre-record the songs and have the actors lip-sync for the cameras, but here almost all of the singing was done live. The effect is subtle, but it’s there; the songs feel less like soundtrack numbers and more like sincere, intimate expressions.
That’s particularly true when it’s Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess singing to or about each other. Both have clear, pleasant singing voices, polished enough to be technically proficient but not so much that they sound sterile and over-produced. Their acting is quite up to par, too.
The very idea of “Across the Universe” is fraught with peril, as attempting to wedge pre-existing pop songs into a story often yields something ridiculous. (I am not eager to see the movie version of the ABBA tribute “Mamma Mia!” planned for next year.) Taymor (who shares story credit with the screenwriters, veteran British TV scribes Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) wrangled with Revolution Studios head Joe Roth over her vision for the film before finally getting her way. So much could have gone wrong and turned this into a complete disaster. And yet here it is, an innovative, marvelously constructed musical full of heart, humor, and feelings. It’s been a labor of love for Taymor, and we all know how important love is.
A- (2 hrs., 12 min.; )