In Tribute to Across the Universe: Forgive Its Flaws and Go See It — Part 1

April 29, 2009

I Know When It's a Dream, I Think I Know

Across the Universe is a beautiful movie that reminds us why we go to movies at all: to escape our reality and enter another. With Julie Taymor directing, the movie looks back to the 1960s with psychedelic musical sequences in a way that is rarely jarring.  What’s so special about this musical is the unique manner in which it was put together, seamlessly combining fantasy with reality while an imaginatively arranged Beatles soundtrack became an integral part of the visuals and sound.

Not surprisingly, Across the Universe shines brightest during the musical numbers.  Non-musical scenes to establish character are, at the very least, adequately acted, but that’s not the point.  This is a conceptual movie; it’s Taymor’s movie and we’re here to enjoy the journey.

[The movie] is our vision of how the period speaks to us now,” Taymor said.  “We need to be reminded of those times.”

To fully appreciate this journey, viewer expectations must be carefully reevaluated.  Do not watch Across the Universe expecting fully sympathetic characters who follow a solid plotline that ties all the loose ends together at the end.  The movie should also not be watched by someone searching for a comprehensive historical presentation of the 1960s.  The movie certainly gives viewers a healthy slice of that era but in 133 minutes only so much can be shown.

Take a Magical Mystery Tour

Instead, watch Across the Universe ready to admire the incredible marriage of visuals and sound, both of which contribute to the movie’s success in equal measure.

Take the opening scene as an example.  The camera zooms in on Jim Sturgess, who plays Jude, sitting alone on a beach with overcast skies.  As Jude fills the screen, he turns toward the camera – breaking the fourth wall – and asks: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story.  All about the girl who came to stay…”  The rendition of the Beatles’ “Girl” is pared down and is as ear-catching as Jude’s looking right at us is eye-catching.  The only accompaniment backing him up is cello and glass harmonica, an instrument developed by Benjamin Franklin producing sounds similar to those created by rubbing the tops of water-filled glasses.

Other arrangements of classes Beatles songs are more conventionally done, but nowhere will you find a song that note-by-note attempts to imitate the Beatles original recordings.  Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal, credited with the movie’s “original score,” purposefully stayed away from that pitfall.  Like Etta James’ “At Last” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” some classic pieces of popular music are sung by performers with inimitable styles; the best way this Beatles musical was going to get anyone’s attention was by altering the soundtrack.

After we meet Jude on the beach near Liverpool (where the Beatles formed), we’re taken to the U.S. where a high-school teen named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) is dancing with her boyfriend Dan (Spencer Liff).  Let’s take a moment now to get this out of the way: nearly all the characters in Across the Universe have names adapted from Beatles songs from the more obvious ones – Lucy and Jude – to Dan (“Rocky Raccoon”) and Desmond (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”), the more you know your Beatles lyrics, the more you’ll be rewarded in this movie.

across the universe mandala1

We’re taken from Jude in Liverpool to Lucy in a rich Massachusetts town and back again until their separate narratives eventually become one.  In the song “Hold Me Tight,” we see Lucy and Dan dancing in their last high school dance before he goes off to fight in Vietnam.  More than once in that number, we head to an underground club in Liverpool (like the ones in which the Beatles first played) where Jude is dancing with his girlfriend Molly (Lisa Hogg).  It’s their last dance, too, before Jude heads to Princeton to find his biological father, who got Jude’s mother pregnant during World War II.

Before Jude leaves, he says goodbye to Molly, launching into song: “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you.  Tomorrow I’ll miss you,” and promises to write home every day, to which Molly responds back, not in song, “You better.”  The transition here from dialogue to song is quick and smooth, an important distinction from some musicals that open most songs with a vamp.  The combination of song and speech in the same song is significant, too, one we see multiple times in Across the Universe.

Jude does find his father at the American university but he’s a custodian, not the professor he expected.  Regardless, Jude says what he needs to say.

“I’m not here for your love or approval,” Jude says to his father, “I’m just here so that both know that the other one exists.”

Soon, Jude is befriended by Princeton student Max, Lucy’s older brother.  In the middle of “With A Little Help From My Friends,” Max almost falls over, incorporating his temporary lack of balance into the lyrics of the song.  It’s a subtle touch, but one that makes the song feel more naturally integrated into the story.  In making a movie that gets as trippy and colorful as Across the Universe, the details can be just as important.

One of the strongest numbers of the movie is

Oh you want to know what the strongest number is, don’t you?  Well you’ll have to click here to read Part 2 of this post.


One comment

  1. […] in the Journey Zach’s Blog « In Tribute to Across the Universe: Forgive Its Flaws and Go See It — Part 1 In Tribute to Across the Universe: Forgive Its Flaws and Go See It — Part 2 April 29, […]

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