On Second Thought... Across the Universe

Allow me to introduce a recurring column- ON SECOND THOUGHT, wherein I futilely attempt to give movies I did not like (but for reasons not entirely clear) a second chance.

Right from the start of Across the Universe, I was naggingly reminded of another fairly recent musical: Moulin Rouge. How could I not be? In retrospect, the comparison holds up; the films have a substantial amount of similarities. I might even go so far as to call them cinematic soul sistah-s. Both films attempt to use the bewitching allure of pop music to ensnare audiences in a storyline built around the songs they feature. Moulin Rouge used a kitchen sink hodge-podge of everything: Bowie, Elton John, Madonna.. even Nirvana made a casual appearance. Across the Universe is one act only, and if you had to pick any pop group from whom to cull a selection of story-ready song snippets, you could hardly do better than The Beatles.

Furthermore, the two male leads are practically replicas, both in character and in singing voice (in Universe's opening image, of Jim Sturgess staring into the camera and starting into the melancholy lyrics of "Girl," sounds so much like Ewan MacGregor that I seriously wondered if maybe one might have doubled the other's vocal performances.) Both films are romantic, both are set in the past, and, curiously, both films feature Bono (...) in some capacity. A final similarity; upon exiting the theater after my initial viewing of each, I was way underwhelmed. In fact, in the case of Moulin Rouge, I was downright pissy.

I went back to Moulin Rouge when it came out on video, and, after countless viewings in the wee hours of many an empty video store, it has grown on me immensely. Armed with the memory of this revelation, and with an eye toward my general love of musicals, I set out to give Across the Universe another shot. Here, sadly, the similarities end.

Julie Taymor is a sometime filmmaker (this is her third in 8 years,) but she made her reputation as a stage director, and in Across the Universe it shows. That being said, I'm not even sure this would have made a good stage musical. I think the fans of this film were simply too easily seduced by the barrage of in-jokes, references and the memory-triggering songs, which to me feel alternately cutesy or just too easy.

The major problem of the film (and of most contemporary musicals, i.e. Sweeney Todd, Rent, et al.) is that the songs just don't have the required emotional attachment. Even the best scenes in the movie, such as when Jude angrily shouts "Revolution" in decry of Lucy's new-found role as anti-war activist, play almost too gently. This would seem to be Taymor's misdoing. On stage, it is often enough simply to perform the music. The audience cannot connect as directly with the performer as in a film. They can't make out faces. You back the songs up with the dances, the costumes, the big hair and all that. In a musical movie, the audience must truly believe the characters are singing, and WOULD sing this song for this reason at this moment. You have to see it in their eyes. At the very least, you have to fake it, but Taymor seems unconcerned, happy to dole out parcels of Fab Four favorites with little more than a wink to the audience, then move on. Here's half of "I've Just Seen a Face," she says. Pretty good, huh? Well, no..

The Beatles immense catalog lends Taymor plenty of quick-hits; musical jabs, too convenient and disposable to amount to much. The songs are too easy to spot to even constitute some kind of "Where's Ringo" game, and I'm not playing anyway. It's the kind of geeky shit that sends internet fanatics into a fit, tallying up and cataloging the films slimy little in-jokes.

There are further problems. Too much world-hopping (to be fair, it is called Across the Universe..) A little focus would be nice, or a slightly more linear approach. Also, the bevy of stars lining up to cameo is just plain stupid. Why bother? Sure, Joe Cocker can sing, but he's not very cinematic. He just stands there.

The side characters are unruly and inconsistent, with the at first Hendrix-like guitar player transforming into a Marvin Gaye look-alike at a convenient moment to sing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Even thought the movie never goes for "Sexy Sadie," "Maxwell Silverhammer," or "Lucy in the Sky" (which is played over the end credits,) Taymor can't resist the lilting lines of "Dear Prudence" or "Hey Jude," paying off the assumption that the characters were built around the emotional waves of the song, not the other way around. Correctly, and thankfully, Taymor avoids any explicit references to the actual Beatles.

In the end, Across the Universe remains a somewhat inscrutable failure. Yes, it is impossible not to smile at "In My Life," "Blackbird," or the myriad of other Beatles hits (there are over thirty in total) that the film features, and not every moment is completely unconvincing. But with such a wealth of built in emotional baggage already built into The Beatles's music, the forgettable nature of the film is inexcusable.

Taymor should have saved the big costumes and the broadway production antics for the stage version she obviously had in mind. With no less than 6 feature films already in existance chronicling the Beatles music (4 of which starring the Beatles themselves,) one more bite at the Apple catalog was bound to seem rotten.

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