Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Across The Universe: One Long, Decent Series Of Music Videos

The Good: Great direction, Nice performances, Moments (what there are) of character, Concept, Moments of plot
The Bad: Not much plot or character
The Basics: With a strong sense of surrealism, Julie Taymor directs a series of connected music videos to create a story of love and growth in the Vietnam Era in Across The Universe.

I’m not known for being a big fan of concept films, films that hinge on special effects, musicals or art films for the sake of being art films. I tend to enjoy things that make sense, have a balance between plot, character, and acting and are enhanced by special effects. So, when something stands out to me as a film that is one generally out of balance, and I find myself truly enjoying it, it says quite a lot. Across The Universe is one such film.

Jude, a British working stiff, journeys to the United States in the mid-1960s in search of his father. Instead, he finds the college-prankster Max and Max’s sister, Lucy. Lucy, a young idealist who has a boyfriend who is shipped over to Vietnam, hits it off with Jude. When Max drops out of college, he and Jude head to New York City and become part of the art and music scene. Lucy, whose high school sweetheart is killed, follows soon after graduating from high school and the trio finds themselves falling in with musicians Sadie and Jojo and the longing Prudence. Together they explore art, love, and an anti-war sentiment as the Vietnam War and the world spiral out of control.

All this is done, of course, to the music of the Beatles. Or rather, all of the action occurs with the characters expressing themselves with Beatles’ songs. Yes, it’s a musical of sorts, but with its creative direction, meandering story and infrequency of dialogue and actual character development, the resulting film feels like a string of music videos loosely sewn together. In that way, it’s very difficult to evaluate Across The Universe. Like many music video collections, there is a hit or miss quality to the film’s parts that makes it difficult to look back at the whole experience and evaluate it as a single body.

But I liked it and I actually liked it that way. I saw a preview for Across The Universe months ago when watching a DVD for a vastly inferior film. The preview was filled with surreal images, cut together with a wonderful speed and sense of pacing. In fact, my only problems with the preview were that it showed virtually the entire film (as far as plot goes) and it invoked trepidation within me as to the film that was being advertised. I didn’t necessarily believe that the film that was represented by the trailer could be as surreal, well-cut, or visually interesting and clever as what was shown in the preview. Had I made the association before between Julie Taymor, who directed Across The Universe and her prior film, Frida, I think I would have lost the nervous feeling that this film could not be pulled off like the trailer.

And therein lies the strength and weakness of Across The Universe; it is almost exactly like a movie trailer. It’s longer, to be sure, but the sense of movement, style and content is very similar to what one gets from an average movie trailer. It is not an exaggeration to say that the film truly does feel like a series of music videos strung together over a loose story of one man’s interest in a young woman and a young woman’s awakening into a violent, changing (and music-filled) world.

What makes Across The Universe work, more than simply the sheer visual spectacle of it (the choreographers sure earned their paychecks for this one!), is the character elements that are presented. The story of Lucy is an intriguing and fairly timeless coming-of-age story, despite how important the setting of the 1960s is to the film. Lucy is your archetypal suburban, white girl who suddenly gets a vision of the larger world and the injustices that reign right outside her door. With the loss of her boyfriend and the drafting of her brother, she is taken on an emotional journey from naivet?through loss to empowerment. She comes to believe in her own strength and the power of her own voice and as she begins to join the peace movement, she fights the powers that be to change the world while retaining her youthful idealism.

She accomplishes the latter part, in part, through her romance with Jude, which soon grows into the focal point of Across The Universe. Set opposite the slightly more mature and professionally entangled Jojo and Sadie, Lucy and Jude fall in with the Walrus (Dr. Robert), Mr. Kite and increasingly radical students at Columbia University who are fighting against the war more and more extremely.

But it is arguably Lucy’s brother Max who has one of the best parts in the film. Dropping out of college removes Max’s immunity from the draft and he soon finds himself mired in the jungles of Vietnam. Easily one of the most compelling sequences in the film is Max’s induction into the Army set to “I Want You.“ His story is the most brutal in many ways and while it does lead to one of the few serious questions about direction (umm . . . Ms. Taymor, why is his arm missing in the VA hospital and then back by the end of the number, are we truly supposed to believe that the power of music restores warfare’s lost limbs?), he remains one of the most interesting characters.

The other interesting character that I found myself instantly drawn to is also the most poorly used: Prudence. Opening her erratic part in the film with a longing rendition of “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” where she harbors a clear desire for another cheerleader, Prudence loves, but never seems to get to truly express it. Instead, she is neglected, pops in and out of the film with no genuine pattern and her eventual satisfaction (if it even lasts) is a one-line footnote between much bigger scenes involving other characters.

The Jojo and Sadie storyline worked best when the two were singing. Indeed, one of the true proofs of how well-told the story is without the need for extensive dialogue comes in one of the clearest scenes where the two break-up while singing on stage. It is a powerful bit of acting and it works without either character breaking out of their song or stage presence.

While Across The Universe may be light on character and plot, it is not light on acting and great performances. With a mostly young cast (looking the principle characters up on the IMDB, most of them are cited with this as their first major project), it is astonishing how good the acting and the musical performances are. Amid cameos from Bono, Joe Cocker, and Eddie Izzard, Dana Fuchs, T.V. Carpio, Martin Luther McCoy, and Joe Anderson give memorable performances using mostly song as opposed to dialogue.

Jim Sturgess plays Jude and he is effective in making the transition between working class guy to love interest to strung-out artist. He has a wonderful sense of body language and his subtle changes in posture throughout the movie help easily and expressively define his character’s emotional state.

The film is headlined by Rachel Evan Woods as Lucy and it’s about time she got a lead role! I first got a load of Evan Rachel Woods’ pipes in the second season finale to Once And Again (Season 1 reviewed here!) and it has only improved since then. Her voice carries much of the film and she has a wide-eyed, wholesome quality that brings Lucy instant credibility. Her transformation into an educated antiwar activist is the essential character growth of the film and it works through her performance. She loses the shine in her eyes and replaces it with a fierce determination. Wood has that ability and she uses that.

Now on DVD, Across The Universe is presented such that it almost makes it worth seeing despite not being on the big screen any longer! The DVD features an extensive and interesting commentary track with Julie Taymor and her music producer Elliot Goldenthal. As well, there are deleted scenes and extensive featurettes featuring behind-the-scenes information. Still, it helps to see this film on the biggest screen possible!

Director Julie Taymor makes another winner with Across The Universe, though it is not for everyone. This film requires a less linear and literal sense to enjoy it. It is artistic, but it manages to tell a story and do that well. The visual effects and sense of surrealism make it seem like a trip through some of the best music videos featuring lyrics by the Beatles ever. It’s a great way to spend an evening and it’s a strong recommend to see it while it’s on the big screen; anyone looking for something truly imaginative and visually impressive will be glad they did!

For other musicals, please check out my reviews of:
The Phantom Of The Opera
The Lion King


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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