Friday, January 25, 2008


Julie Taymor’s Titus is quite possibly the wildest and most interesting Shakespeare film adaptation I’ve ever seen. I wasn’t overly fond of her Frida, though.
Those sentiments clearly don’t make me a rabid fan of her work. She is, however, one of those directors that are always on my radar, whose films are always worth, at the very least, a healthily curious look.
And when her Beatles-inspired musical, Across The Universe, ran into some studio interference, well, that just pumped up my curiousity all the more. I mean, when a film gets into trouble with the studio, more often than not, that means it’s not your usual, run of the mill Hollywood pap. (Or it’s gone insanely overbudget.)

Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a factory worker from Liverpool who makes the great escape to the U.S. of A. with a personal agenda. Lucy (Running With Scissors’ Evan Rachel Wood) is a privileged young girl about to go off to college.
The paths of these soon-to-be star-crossed lovers are about to intersect, and in the company of Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson, who played Peter Hook in Control) and a motley crew of—in Lucy’s mom’s own words—“promiscuous drug fiends,” they spend a pivotal summer in New York, while war rages in a tiny Asian country called Vietnam.
It’s there, in the Big Apple, social unrest and awakening going on all around them, that Jude and Lucy learn life’s most valuable lesson: all you need is love.

At its core, Across The Universe is a love story.
But that, of course, is complicated by, not just the ‘60’s counterculture backdrop, but also the presence of the film’s supporting characters, some (like Max) more prominent than others (the sadly underused Prudence, played by the curiously named T.V. Carpio).
Things get a tad disappointing when a character like Prudence is introduced into the narrative with the quiet and poignant yearning of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” only to be shuffled in and out of the story without any apparent rhyme or reason.
Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) also gets a powerful and effective introduction, with the gospel stylings of “Let It Be,” his arrival in the big city heralded by Joe Cocker’s blazing rendition of “Come Together” as urban anthem.
Jo-Jo, at least, gets slightly more face time than Prudence, but his subplot (also romantic) happens largely off-screen.

Clearly, the choice to set Across The Universe during the ‘60’s was to give the story more depth and resonance, and I’m all for that. But when the narrative fails to support not just the number of characters, but also the weight of its own intentions, then the film falls short of the dizzying heights of its immense potential. The result is a tale that lacks substance, peopled by characters that aren’t as fully realized as they ought to be.
The narrative, as well as its energy level, doesn’t quite sustain itself over the 2-hour running time. And somehow, the climax leaves the impression that the characters survived the ordeal, rather than triumphed over the adversity of the times.
While it takes a page from Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge by utilizing popular music as narrative shorthand, Across The Universe doesn’t hit the bull’s eye the way Luhrmann’s rousing and incredibly moving musical did.

That’s not to say that Across The Universe is a complete let down. This is one of those cases where the parts are most definitely greater then their sum.
“Strawberry Fields,” which juxtaposes Jude’s agonized personal confusion, with the horrors of Vietnam (though the flaming strawberry bombs are arguably a tad much); the snatches of “Across The Universe” that we actually manage to hear—as Taymor chooses to pit it in a discordant war with “Helter Skelter.”
And those final moments of “Across The Universe,” with eerie visuals that rival some of the more vivid images from Titus.
These are when the film works the best, when the imagery and the music (and in some numbers, Daniel Ezralow‘s choreography) merge into a cinematic experience that stays with you past the end credits.

Across The Universe also boasts some interesting appearances by Bono, Eddie Izzard, the aforementioned Cocker, and a past Taymor collaborator (the cameo’s too sweet to spoil the surprise).
It’s also got solid musical support from McCoy (touted as “one of music’s next big movements”), Carpio (daughter of noted Asian singer Teresa Carpio), and Dana Fuchs, who, as Sadie, eerily recalls Janis Joplin (whom she played in the off-Broadway hit, Love, Janis).
The central performances are however, slightly problematic. Sturgess and Wood can sing well enough, sure, but sometimes, the emotion doesn’t shine through as much as it should, particularly from Wood, whose Lucy, after all, is asked and demanded more of by the narrative.
There’s also the very suddenness of the film’s denoeument, sparked by a rendition of “Hey, Jude” placed in a weirdly improbable context. This is arguably one of the bigger shortcomings of the film, leaving the audience with a vaguely unsatisfying ending, as if they needed to wrap things up, and weren’t at all sure how.

Still, though Across The Universe may be uneven, and I’ve still to find that Julie Taymor film that slays me completely, this is clearly not a boring film.
In my books, Taymor’s still a far more interesting director for a musical than, say, Rob Marshall.
Or Joel Schumacher.

Parting shot: Proving she likes to work with familiar faces, Taymor is gearing up for the Spider-Man musical, with Bono doing the music.
To further reinforce that notion, word once floated on the web that Taymor was looking at Sturgess and Wood to play Spidey and Mary Jane in the musical, though I’ve yet to hear anything concrete regarding casting.
Taymor is, of course, best regarded for her work on The Lion King musical.

Parting shot 2: For those of you who love behind-the-scenes thingies, Dana Fuchs blogs about her experiences during the Across The Universe shoot here.

Parting shot 3: Reviews of Running With Scissors and Control can be found in the Archive.

(Across The Universe OS courtesy of; soundtrack album cover art courtesy of; images courtesy of Sony Pictures and

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