Across the Universe – A Retrospective

Critics were all over the map in reviewing Across the Universe, the 2007 movie that sets 1960s history (Vietnam war protests, free speech movements, race riots, and the LSD revolution) against the backdrop of a love story set in motion by a nearly continuous soundtrack of Beatles tunes, sung by the cast members of the movie.

The critic Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars and a thumbs-up, calling it a bold, beautiful, visually enchanting musical, with an audacious marriage of cutting-edge visual techniques [and] heart-warming performances. Stephen Holden, the New York Times movie critic, made it a Critics Pick, saying that [it] captured my heart, and I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person. Imperfections, however glaring, become endearing quirks once you’ve tumbled.

Yet, Rotten Tomatoes, the review website, gave it 2-1/2 stars and 53% on its Tomatometer, meaning that the 153 critics weighing in were almost evenly split between the positive and the negative. Some negatives used phrases like, “cheesy and nostalgic,” “whimsical silliness,” and, “a terrible disappointment.”

Still, the Tomatoes audience scored its likeability at 82%, and IMDB users gave it a rating of 7.4 out of a possible 10, a very good score by a cross-section of average moviegoers. But even there, a few self-professed Beatles lovers called it “awful,”   “unbearable,”   “unwatchable,” as if were an affront to John and Paul to hijack their great songs and sing them with fresh voices and altered renderings. Others said the movie had no real plot, that it was just one Beatles tune after another trying to give meaning to a meandering story.

For me, the movie simply worked, and on several levels. First, I am a fan of Beatles music, who came to his love of it late in the game. The first phase of their too-short career consisted of what was, to me, mindless pap, such as She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, which left me cold. But the group seemed to grow up, and they grew on me, starting with the Revolver album, gaining strength and meaning with Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and finally, with The White Album and Abbey Road, achieving their place in my personal Hall of Fame and in Rock and Roll immortality. Unfortunately, they broke up shortly after that, victims of their own egos, too much fame acquired too quickly, or just plain burnout.

Fast forward to this movie, Across the Universe. Conceived and directed by Julie Taymor, it is more than just a story told through Beatles songs, though it is that in spades. It is primarily a love story between Jude, an artist from Liverpool who comes to America to find the father he never knew, and Lucy, an American teenage girl. Jude, played by Jim Sturges, and Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Wood, are obviously named for two prominent characters in Beatles songs and are the only actors in the cast with any real acting credits. The director Taymor used relative unknowns for the roles of the supporting cast, also named for characters in Beatles songs. First there is Lucy’s brother Max (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer), who becomes fast friends with Jude. Then there is Sadie (Sexy Sadie), a nightclub singer in the style of Janice Joplin; and Jo-Jo (from the song, Get Back), a Jimi Hendrix-like guitarist; finally Prudence (Dear Prudence), a lovesick Ohio teenager. All those characters, and others, come together in the New York East Side flat of Sadie, where they take up residence to live their individual lives and tell their stories through Beatles songs, faithful to the originals but often given different meanings through unique renditions.

Without listing all the great moments in song, I’ll describe just a few that stood out for me.

First Prudence, a high school football cheerleader, sings a slow, soulful version of I Want to Hold Your Hand, seemingly directed to one of the players of the team, until the object of Prudence's longing is revealed to be another female cheerleader. After being rejected, Prudence hitchhikes to New York to literally Come In Through the Bathroom Window of Sadie’s flat, where she proceeds to fall for Sadie.

Switch to a scene of a big city riot, which resembles a war zone, with bullets and bombs going off. There, a boy, no older than ten, is cowering in fear next to a burned out car, singing Let It Be in heartrending tones. The boy’s funeral is shown in the next scene, and that is the catalyst for Jo-Jo to pack up and head for New York, where he becomes Sadie’s lead guitarist, also her lover. On arrival in the big city, he is greeted by Joe Cocker, singing a hilarious version of Come Together, Cocker playing three different characters during the song, as Jo-Jo strolls through this strange new world.

Max, Jude best friend, has two great turns at rendering Beatles songs into an integral part of the story. First, having been drafted into the U.S. Army, he shows up at the induction center, beginning a funny, phantasmagorical scene, starting with Uncle Sam coming to life from a poster and pointing a long finger at an obviously terrified Max, while singing, I Want You, I Want You So Bad. Things go from bad to worse for Max, as he, along with dozens of other scared inductees, is stripped down to his underwear, processed on an assembly line into Army life, and is finally seen trudging through a fantasy jungle with a group of other scared soldiers, all still in their underwear, carrying a huge facsimile of the Statue of Liberty while singing She’s So Heavy.

Max’s other great moment comes after Vietnam and the Army are behind him. Sitting alone at a bar, Max, looking wistful and burned out, starts singing Hey Jude in a voice that matches his wistful look. His own image is reflected in the back-bar mirror, while, looking through the mirror, we see Jude sitting in a pub in Liverpool, having been deported back to England after an arrest at an antiwar rally. Max is singing the McCartney classic to himself, but he is also singing it to Jude, and Max nails the song, as good as anyone I’ve ever heard, other than McCartney himself.

The movie ends back in New York with a rooftop scene and all the players reunited, singing All You Need Is Love, and singing it so convincingly that they persuade the cops, who are there to break up the unauthorized songfest, to Let Them Be.

To sum it up, I loved this movie and would recommend it to anyone, whether a Beatles fan or not. And to those critics who didn’t get it or flat-out hated it, I can only say, with no humility whatsoever, you got it wrong.


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