Jukebox musicals have been a mainstay up and down Broadway for years: "Mamma Mia!", "Movin' Out", "We Will Rock You", "All Shook Up", and at least a couple dozen others. Aside from a few brief flirtations in the late '70s and the very early '80s, Hollywood's never had much interest in the concept, with only Moulin Rouge managing to make any commercial and critical in-roads in recent years. It seems all too appropriate that the task of returning this sort of musical to the big screen would be handed to Julie Taymor. One of the theatre's biggest and brightest talents, the dazzling visual flair that Taymor brought to her first two movies -- Titus and Frida -- makes her uniquely poised to helm a musical with the scale and grandeur that a legendary act like The Beatles demands.
Across the Universe opens in the 1960s, during those final months of innocence before anyone had any concept just how disastrous the then-budding conflict in Vietnam would quickly become. Jude (Jim Sturgess) leaves the bleak shipyards of Liverpool behind in search of his father, hopping straight off the boat in New Jersey to track him down on Princeton's campus. It's there that he meets Max (Joe Anderson), a freewheeling spirit looking to leave his lavish, upper crust upbringing behind in favor of the Greenwich Village lifestyle in New York. Jude and Max quickly set themselves up in a sprawling apartment they share with incendiary rock singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a timid young Asian girl named Prudence who's struggling with her sexuality (T.V. Carpio), and Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitarist quietly reeling from the death of his young brother in a race riot. This being a musical told almost entirely through the enduring songs of The Beatles, the driving story of Across the Universe is, of course, about a girl. Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), Max's younger sister, decides to spend the summer in their communal apartment in New York. Lucy promises her mother that she won't let the big, bad city get her, but she is quickly transformed, both by the love that quickly develops between her and Jude as well as her increasingly radical commitment to protesting against the war in Vietnam. Across the Universe follows these characters throughout the decade, using them to explore the emotional impact of death, heartbreak, and the compulsion to discover who you really are.
Across the Universe deeply polarized critics when it first roared into theaters, and as 2007 drew to a close, the film found its place on as many lists of the year's worst movies as it did on those recapping the year's best. As odd as this might sound, I appreciate that. Art should evoke an intense reaction; I'd rather watch a movie that takes chances and walk away hating every minute of it than disinterestedly shrug off something that aims squarely towards the middle of the road.
Across the Universe is better taken as an experience rather than a movie. The story itself is incidental, just a threadbare excuse for Julie Taymor to string together some of her favorite Beatles songs. It's littered with a few characters that are uninteresting and irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, giving them their own musical numbers just because Taymor and company couldn't find a way to tie those songs into Jude and Lucy's tumultuous romance. Across the Universe is undeniably a case of style overstepping substance, but for a film this stylish...so overflowing with imagination, bolstered by such a dazzling visual style, and anchored around some truly outstanding music...I can't dismiss that as a negative.
Considering that Across the Universe is a musical based around songs penned by a band as enduring and iconic as The Beatles, I wasn't expecting to be as enthralled by its visuals as I was by its music. Taymor has no interest in just shooting a traditional stage musical with a slew of Panavision cameras in tow; Across the Universe was designed specifically for film, crafted on a scale that could never hope to be reproduced in any other form. Taymor takes one of the decades most frequently captured on film and captures it in an entirely different light. Taymor shies away from the expected images -- rice farmers darting away from tracer fire in Vietnam, love-ins, Woodstock, flared bell bottoms -- using the familiar iconography of the '60s as briefly glimpsed and almost suggestive points of reference rather than crutches for the storytelling. She knows the audience has seen these same images time and again -- that it's understood what they represent -- so a fleeting, suggestive look is all that's needed. Taymor would just as soon expose viewers to images they haven't seen rather than rehash the overly familiar.
Across the Universe is an astonishingly imaginative and beautiful film. For instance, Taymor suggests the massacre of the Vietnamese by having ghostly white, androgynous figures fall backwards into the sea. Even though a couple of the movie's characters are tossed into Vietnam, Across the Universe ultimately isn't about them so much as how the war impacts those left behind, bathing Jude and Lucy in projected images from the conflict. There are too many outstanding moments to list -- the trippy, surreal collage as Eddie Izzard belts out "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" that practically plays like a Residents video, the parade of virtually identical, square-jawed soldiers flinging around inductees in their skivvies, a priest flailing his arms as wounded vets in hospital beds spin around and five copies of Salma Hayek writhe around on the floor to the tune of "Happiness Is a Warm Gun", and Jude pinning an array of bleeding strawberries to a canvas are just a few that immediately spring to mind.
Taymor's grand, theatrical vision is wholly unleashed on Across the Universe, and even though I don't think every sequence works -- Joe Cocker belting out "Come Together" while stumbling around as a pimp, a hippie, and a weathered, homeless man made me cringe, for one -- the fact that she goes to such extremes...not reining herself in to pander to some particular demographic...is tremendously impressive. Similarly daring is how Across the Universe transforms these familiar songs by The Beatles. Taymor and long-time collaborator Elliot Goldenthal tear apart the traditional arrangements. Only the tiniest handful of even The Beatles' earliest, most straightforward songs represented in the film use the familiar guitar, bass, and drums instrumentation. The dozens of songs featured throughout Across the Universe are generally stripped down their barest essence, with only the trippier, psychedelic stretches having the sort of sweeping grandeur expected from a Hollywood musical. Beatles purists may wince, but these heavily modified arrangements often leave the songs with much more of an emotional wallop than if the horde of musicians had reproduced them note for note in the studio. Besides, some of these songs are cast in such a different context than The Beatles intended anyway -- "I Want to Hold Your Hand" used to hint at lesbian longing and "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" taking on more of a political bent -- that it follows that they should be performed differently as well.
Across the Universe isn't easily embraced. It's a demanding film and requires being approached with a different mindset than most; even though my overall impression is positive, I'll admit that I struggled to ease into Across the Universe in its first half-hour, and if not for a pressing deadline, I would've liked to have watched the film again to better cement an opinion. Even though Across the Universe is a deeply polarizing, love-it-or-hate it film, I'm impressed that Sony and Revolution Studios would bankroll something this ambitious and uncommercial, standing behind its director's vision and ensuring that the movie's daunting 133 minute runtime remained intact. Across the Universe isn't for everyone and certainly isn't without its faults, but I found this gorgeous, inventive film with its sensational soundtrack to be well worth discovering on Blu-ray.
Video: Across the Universe is a visually dazzling film, and it absolutely sparkles in high definition. I was startled several times by just how richly detailed and sumptuously colorful Across the Universe is on Blu-ray: the candy-colored hues of the psychedelic collage with Mr. Kite and the Blue Meanies, the reflection of the horrors of Vietnam onto Lucy's shell-shocked face, the bleeding fruit and splashes of red in "Strawberry Fields Forever", and the distinctness and clarity of the many thousands of bricks when Jude first pokes his head out of a window after arriving in the Big Apple, to rattle off a few particularly outstanding moments. Across the Universe makes a very deliberate use of color, casting the early scenes on these shores in a golden, nostalgic glow, dusting Liverpool with more of an ashen gray, and spilling over with eye-popping vibrancy once the movie settles into The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" period. Despite the visuals being so extensively shaped and tweaked in the digital domain, the 2.39:1 image reveals just enough of a faint, grainy texture to remind viewers that Across the Universe had been shot on film. Some moments early on looked to my eyes as if they'd been artificially sharpened, but it's not a constant concern and is never distracting. No flaws in the source or with the AVC encoding were spotted throughout this immaculate presentation, although a number of the slow-motion shots have a sort of ghosting and judder in the motion; I'm assuming this is intentional. Across the Universe is another in an increasingly long line of exceptional efforts from Sony.
Audio: As gorgeous as Across the Universe looks on Blu-ray, its outstanding 24-bit Dolby TrueHD soundtrack manages to be even better. This is a particularly immersive mix, making frequent and extensive use of each of the six channels it has on-hand. The tumult of the 1960s is reflected in the ambitious sound design, with the decade's violent riots, heated protests, and the brutality of Vietnam making for some of its aggressive moments. Across the Universe being a sweeping musical and all, it goes without saying that the mix is at its most lively when these extensively reworked Beatles songs take center stage. I love how these sounds nimbly leap from channel to channel, from the swirling guitars in "Come Together" to the spry effects as the cast careens down bowling lanes during "I've Just Seen a Face". The way each individual instrument is clear and distinct, the powerful low-end, the clarity of the vocal performances -- some of which were captured live on the set and are still pitch-perfect -- all sound phenomenal, making Across the Universe one of just a handful of titles on either high definition format that I'd without hesitation rate a perfect five stars.
Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs are offered in Portuguese and Spanish, and subtitle streams have been provided in English (traditional and SDH), Spanish, Portuguese, French, Chinese, Korean, and Thai.
Extras: Sony continues to make full use of Blu-ray's expansive capacity by including over two hours of high definition extras for Across the Universe. Its five featurettes make up the lion's share of that runtime, and not a single of them is bogged down by any sort of promotional bent or EPK filler; these are true looks into the making of the film.
The first of the featurettes, "Creating the Universe", spends a full half hour delving into production design, the storytelling, and the elaborate musical sequences. Taymor speaks at length about some of her goals for Across the Universe -- the songs feeling as if they're seamlessly and spontaneously emerging from the characters, letting the lyrics tell the story, and staying open to new ideas that might pop up on the set. Several sequences are explored in detail, including Max's nightmarishly surreal induction into the military and soldiers lugging Lady Liberty around Vietnam to the tune of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", the acid trips of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "I Am the Walrus", and the stirringly emotional gospel take on "Let It Be".
"Stars of Tomorrow" (27 min.) touches on the background of each actor and notes how he or she was brought into the film, and the cast is given a chance to comment about how they chose to approach their characters. Along with such comments as Evan Rachel Wood's long-abandoned time in the theatre to Sadie being written with Dana Fuchs expressly in mind, there are also numerous looks at the cast during rehearsals and how they tackled the difficult task of seamlessly blending the musical numbers in with the film's dialogue.
"All About the Music" is...well, all about the music. The featurette spends much of its fifteen minute runtime in the recording studio, touching on the unique instrumentation -- everything from the glass harmonica that opens the film to scraping the back of an acoustic bass with rubber -- as well as some of the stripped down arrangements. The mandate was for Across the Universe's numbers to represent the songs rather than The Beatles, and "All About the Music" describes how drastically many of these songs were rearranged and stripped down. The recording process gets quite a bit of attention, from dusting off vintage gear and equipment to a fair amount of the vocals being captured live on the set.
The movie's elaborate choreography is the focus of "Moving Across the Universe" (9 min.). This featurette alternates between interviews, rehearsal footage, and a behind the scenes look at filming, along with comments about how natural movements were emphasized whenever possible.
Finally, "FX On the Universe" (6 min.) is a rapid fire look into the digital effects work behind several sequences: the bleeding artwork and strawberry bombs in "Strawberry Fields Forever", the skewed collage behind "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite", the dizzying flurry of metal boxes in "I Want You (She's So Heavy)", and the dreamlike footage captured in a water tank for the movie's end credits. The conceptualization and thought process behind these sequences are touched on as well.
It's worth noting that although the majority of the material has been natively shot in high-def, the rehearsals and some of the earliest days of the shoot were taped in 4x3 and standard definition only. "Stars of Tomorrow" is the only featurette where the standard definition material is particularly dominant, though.
Director Julie Taymor is joined in the disc's audio commentary by her long-time collaborator, composer/arranger Elliot Goldenthal. It's a serious, almost academic commentary track, placing its emphasis squarely on the craftsmanship behind the storytelling, the music, and the production design. Taymor describes her approach to telling a story almost entirely through music, with only around a half hour of the 133 minute film featuring any dialogue. She also notes the contrast between her background in theatre and shooting a musical expressly for the big screen, as well as touching on how it was decided to imply drug use and suggest the horrors of Vietnam rather than showing them in graphic detail. Taymor also points out a couple of moments that either weren't shot or were trimmed out early on, including an elaborate climax at Woodstock and the inadvertent corniness of a brass band on the street squeaking out "All You Need Is Love". With an experienced composer like Goldenthal in the recording booth, it follows that the music highlighted through Across the Universe is discussed at length, including very specific notes about the instrumentation and heavily altered arrangements, the influence of specific musical acts, and how recording live vocals on the set in numbers like "Revolution" added a sense of intimacy and immediacy that would've been lost if they'd just been lip synced. This is a thoughtful, comprehensive commentary track and a rewarding listen.
Taymor mentions in her audio commentary how Eddie Izzard's performance of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" was piecemealed together from somewhere around twenty heavily improvised takes. This Blu-ray disc includes Izzard tearing through the song twice, spouting off very different off-the-cuff lyrics and even fumbling with his top hat at one point. Across the Universe only includes one deleted scene: Jojo's post-coital, piano-driven rendition of "And I Love Her", which clocks in under a minute in length. The disc also offers more than a half hour of extended musical performances: "Hold Me Tight", "Come Together", "I Am the Walrus", "Dear Prudence", "Something", "Oh! Darling", "While My Guitar Gently Weeps", and "Across the Universe / Helter Skelter". All of this additional footage is in high definition as well.
Rounding out the extras is a small, low-resolution gallery of conceptual sketches by Don Nace. Overall, Across the Universe features an extremely strong selection of extras, and all of them are well worth taking the time to explore.
Conclusion: This is a polarizing movie; virtually everyone I know who's seen Across the Universe either fell deeply in love with it or could barely stomach more than twenty or thirty minutes. While this does make it more difficult to enthusiastically recommend spending $30 or $40 for the Blu-ray disc sight-unseen, I very much appreciate what Julie Taymor has accomplished with Across the Universe. I'd much rather see a film that provokes a strong reaction -- positive or negative -- than just mindlessly warm over the same stale, familiar formulas again and again. Across the Universe is daring enough to take chances, shaping something distinctive and visually dazzling around dozens of The Beatles' most enduring songs. Across the Universe certainly isn't for all tastes, and hesitant viewers may want to opt for a rental first. I'll admit that it took a short while for me to settle into Across the Universe's unconventional state of mind, but once I made that leap, I was floored. Across the Universe looks and sounds incredible on Blu-ray, the disc is bolstered by a remarkably strong assortment of high definition extras. Highly Recommended.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.