The last time someone entertained the idea of matching the Beatles' music to a screen adventure was in 1978, with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." And we all know how that one turned out. Director Julie Taymor's ambitions shoot a little higher for her round of Fab Four worship, eschewing satin jackets and Peter Frampton for a film of singular artistic representation and copious visual poetry/madness.
A young English shipyard stooge, Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels to Vietnam-concerned America to find his father. He soon falls under the spell of Max (Joe Anderson), a reckless college student with an urge to ditch his pampered life and live in bohemian New York City. Taking Max up on the offer, Jude immerses himself in his art and his affection for Max's younger sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), while settling into a commune-like apartment with singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs), lesbian Prudence (T.V. Carpio), and rocker JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy). As the stage is set for an explosion of social uprising, emotional escalation, and painful lessons in broken hearts, Jude finds his soul changed by this experience, struggling to maintain his voice in an unraveling world.
After her leashed success with the artist bio-pic "Frida," Taymor seems itching to jump back into the warm waters of the cartwheeling surreal artistry that defined her 1999 marathon, "Titus." "Universe" is a strange musical, especially in the context of today's classic pop music marketplace that's turning everything sonically sacred into Broadway gold ("Mamma Mia!," "Movin' Out"), but its unpredictability is a major asset. The film represents Taymor at her most confined, expectation-wise (it is Beatles music, after all), yet dares her ambition to turn the familiar sights, sounds, and political aggression of the 1960s into a swirling bouillabaisse of colors and passion. Sometimes she stumbles, but the fanaticism and boldness of the picture is exhilarating.
It's impossible to ignore that "Universe" has been whittled out of pure cheese. Taymor isn't tinkering with iconic political and pop culture moments of the era as much as she's relying on them to act as visual touchstones for the comfort of the audience. They are common sights: war protests, Vietnam hubbub, drug-fueled escapism of the mind, and flower power. Nothing in the picture is a subtle remark on the times; Taymor scavenges to mold this hodgepodge of era-specific melodrama and personalities, smudging the decade into one big sparkling smear. It extends beyond the Beatles ephemera and cutesy references (such as Prudence sneaking through a bathroom window, or another character imagining his life when he's 64) to include Sadie and JoJo as doubles for Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, Lucy falling for a Weathermen-type of radical protest group, and Bono in a cameo as a trippy Neal Cassady figure named Dr. Robert (singing "I Am the Walrus").
Not all of it pieces together smoothly, and you if come to "Universe" with a mind unprepared for such rampant use of cliché and smug artist iconography, the film will surely nauseate. "Universe" is best appreciated more as a shotgun blast of expression than a traditional story; Taymor gives into her performance art urges often during the film, which teems with surreal special effects ("Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" is both the most explosive and trying of the film's more extravagant sequences), exaggerated choreography, and usage of street puppetry. The feature is a circus with tent poles pushing right through the screen, and I responded to Taymor's eccentricities with tremendous joy. She's willing to flame-out in a big way with her concepts, and that is a lost art.
In "Universe's" corner are the celebrated tunes, which are given proper respect from the cast. In the case of Wood, it demonstrates she's a far better singer than she is an actress. Since the film follows dramatic convention, the opening half, with its lighter set list (including showstoppers "It Won't Be Long" and "Hold Me Tight") is a breezy affair compared to the drudgery of the second half, with its darker intentions and calamity. Still, most of the music is interpreted with gusto and imagination, even when it deviates off the Beatles track. Imagining "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as a lesbian anthem for Prudence is a good example.
"Universe" isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, and that's exactly how I want my Julie Taymor served. It's a polarizing experience, asking the viewer to follow some very extreme and potentially ludicrous lines of thought and presentation. If given the mental green light, "Across the Universe" is an oddity that crosses over to exhilaration and crooked beauty often, keeping the audience on their toes with this mash note to communicative spirits and rousing free-range creativity.
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