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Across The Universe

USA 2007
Directed by
Julie Taymor
133 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Across The Universe

Synopsis: It's the 1960s and Liverpool ship-worker Jude (Jim Sturgess) goes to America in search of the dad he never knew. He is befriended by Princeton drop-out Max (Joe Anderson) and falls in love with Max's sister, Lucie (Evan Rachel Wood). Soon, these three are up to their ears in social revolution.

Just as I was recovering from the strangeness of Fur, Steven Shainberg's imaginary portrait of Diane Arbus, comes Julie Taymor's 1960s coming-of-age story set to re-interpretations of the Beatles' catalogue. Both films are ambitious but whereas Shainberg's started well and gradually unravelled, Taymor's provides a painful threshold to what slowly becomes an unexpectedly entertaining effort.

The first portion of Across the Universe puts together Jude and Lucy, the former a Paul McCartneyish-looking working stiff in the Liverpool dockyards, the other a long-blonde-haired, eyes-of-blue preppie daughter of well-to-do middle class Americans. The story of how they get together is a painfully slow build to what appears to be a bad teen romance set to the Fab Fours' wettest hits - try "A Little Help From My Friends" as performed by a bunch of fun-lovin' Animal House-ish frat boys or "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" as sung by an Asian lesbian cheerleader (T.V. Carpio). The chronological and social historical incongruities that Taymor's interpretations of just those two songs represent is symptomatic of the conceptual Quasimodo that at this stage the film appears to be. But jaw-droppingly awful as it promises to be, if you weather the first hour or so of what is a slightly too long film, the good news is that things do get better.

Jude with his new buddy Max travels to New York, moves into a chicly grungy apartment owned by a rasp-voice singer (Dana Fuchs) who looks like Janis Joplin and whose boyfriend (Martin Luther McCoy) looks like Jimi Hendrix and gets full tilt into 60s counter-culture. Jude designs the logo (a strawberry not an Apple) for a record label, meets Prudence (the afore-mentioned lesbian who appears to have gone straight) who comes in through the bathroom window, Max gets a silver hammer and so on. Yes it's walking a dangerous line between the groovy and the ghastly but once we hit the psychedelic era, Taymor, a theatrical director with a taste for vibrant visuals (her main cinematic credit to date is Titus, 1999) does some fabulous stagings of the songs which actually start to become one with narrative. Joe Cocker's tri-character performance of "Come Together", a gospel version of "Let It Be", Eddie Izzard as Mr Kite all give fresh and engaging interpretations of oft-heard songs. Unfortunately Bono does appear as a singing Dr Roberts but we'll let that pass. All up, if you liked Love, the George Martin & Son 2006 re-working of Beatles' songs, you'll probably find a good deal to enjoy here.

The film was reportedly taken away from Taymor after disastrous advance screenings and re-cut by the producers.The version which we are seeing, however, Taymor is acknowledging as her own so what has been gained and lost I do not know. Across the Universe is the sort of film which nobody seems to have asked the question - who is our audience? Anyone old enough to know the times and the songs first-hand will have great difficulty in their being half-nelsoned into a sappy romance between two innocuous characters. A younger audience may find the romance palatable but unless they have a solid grounding in the history of the times would miss a large portion of the film's references.

Across The Universe may make some Worst-of lists for 2007 but  it is a film that will polarise audiences. Good or bad, probably both views are over-statements but it is a bold film that deserves to be seen, particularly by anyone who like musicals.




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