March 09, 2008

Across the Universe

There are some movies destined to be loved by everyone. Across the Universe is not one of them. A movie for youth — and those who fondly remember youth — it has left me with a lightness to my step and a song at the tip of my tongue each of the three times I've watched it. It's a joyous confection of a movie that takes liberties with history and its own timeline in service of an engaging journey with staggering visual beauty and depth. Though it begins fractured, real characters with hopes and burdens rise from the hodgepodge of Beatles classics as the film picks up steam. For those that are open enough and lighthearted enough to be swept up by the film's charm, this film is a bonanza.

The film opens at the story's climax with Jim Sturgess's young Liverpudlian Jude on a beach singing his lament to the waves. As he turns to face us, he pleads: "Is there anybody going to listen to my story?" And abruptly, we're off.

Vietnam-era newspaper copy tears across the screen to a jarring, Joplin-esque spin on "Helter Skelter" in a brief interlude before landing at the beginning, wherein each of our characters is introduced with a song.

"Hold Me Tight" intercuts between Jude with his girlfriend at the club where the Beatles first met their manager in Liverpool and post-World War II suburbanite Lucy at her high school prom. On a football field in Ohio, cheerleader Prudence expresses her unrequited longing for a teammate on the squad with a sorrowful take on "I Want to Hold Your Hand." On the grounds of Yale, a rambunctious rendition of "With a Little Help from My Friends" tosses unruly but amiable Max into the mix. Jude belts out a rousing, jubilant "I've Just Seen a Face" at the bowling alley after meeting Lucy — before a stirring Gospel performance of "Let It Be" plummets us back to stark reality. By this point we realize, if we haven't already, that we care what happens next.

The journey that follows takes us from sometime shortly before July 23 1967, the date of the 12th Street Riot in Detroit, until an unspecified point after March 6, 1970, when a bomb under construction at a Weather Underground safe house in Greenwich Village prematurely detonated and killed three of the group's leaders. The story hops between Liverpool, small town America, Detroit and Vietnam, but it finds its center in New York City. Looked at objectively, the plot is a Forrest Gump-style travelogue of period history that should feel artificial. But like the music, what shouldn't work does.

Instead of straining credibility, the weight of history colors the actions of characters with a honest inevitability. Each time the characters seem to find peace and stability, the world drops another bombshell that forces them back into motion. Making a nostalgic showcase of the era would have been the easy thing to do, but what director Julie Taymor does is more subtle. She uses period events as catalysts, and the disparate reactions to each development further delineate the characters. The past compounds on itself in this way, pulling the characters slowly — and on occasion suddenly — apart. Gump toured history; these characters live it. The distinction is key to the film's vitality.

Also key is the exuberant often surreal landscape they inhabit. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel doesn't shy away from rich saturated colors, making him somewhat of a treasured anachronism in today's post-Matrix world of blues and greens. The world of Across the Universe pops with bright tie-dye color. His brilliant lighting is matched by the director's unique vision. Neither of Taymor's past works on screen, Titus and Frida, were limited by the bounds of reality and neither is this. Her penchant for blurring the line between the actual and the imagined allows her to get away with traditionally-executed musical. Having a character burst into song mid-scene would normally clash with the conventions of cinema but feels completely natural in a Julie Taymor film. Each number is used to showcase the characters' state of mind, and this invites the visual extravagance of layered visuals and thinly disguised choreography that results from each set piece. Taymor employs the same ingenuity required of the inherently limited stage to the limitless three-dimensionality provided by film.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Sturgess's Jude, in addition to looking like a cross between Paul McCartney and George Harrison, provides the vocal performance we expect from the Beatles. By contrast, Joe Anderson (the film's other limey) plays the quintessentially American Max flawlessly. Like Hugh Laurie, Anderson never feels encumbered by the accent — even singing. He brings a rumpled untidiness to his performance that helps carry Max past his Ivy League roots.

Evan Rachel Wood is probably the most well-known of the core cast, so the biggest shocker is how well she can sing. Also surprising is the way Taymor softens up her appearance. Wood's hard, classic features tend to make her look years older than she is, so it was a nice change to see her play a Lucy with the foolish single-minded idealism of a kid. The Vietnam War has played havoc with Lucy's life, and Wood brings forth the tangible agony of that unrestrained. The best thing that can be said about Wood's performance is that it is not precocious.

Broadway veteran T.V. Carpio achieves something extraordinary right from her introduction: her Prudence requires a total reevaluation of a Beatles song. Though Prudance is something of a cypher, with long stretches of time unaccounted for, Carpio broadcasts the character's emotional state between and especially during each musical number she's a part of.

As the sexy landlord/bandleader Sadie, Dana Fuchs proves intriguing yet ultimately impenetrable. While the other characters are introduced participating in the universalities of living, she is introduced on stage. The lack of character development frustrates Fuchs' attempts to move beyond a Janis Joplin impersonation. Still, she provides a laid back, West Coast energy that balances out her more intense cohorts.

Martin Luther McCoy, a vocal artist who has toured with The Roots and recorded two solo albums, makes his big screen acting debut as Sadie's guitarist JoJo. Serving primarily as a Jimi Hendrix surrogate, JoJo is afforded minimal screen time but deals with some of the movie's weightiest issues. Luther McCoy manages to convey that suffering and inner suffering in every scene he gets.

All six members of the core cast came to the film with previous musical talent. Musical cameos from Joe Cocker and Bono add to the film, while an appearance by Eddie Izzard is a jarring distraction. Salma Hayek gamely makes a brief appearance near the end.

As compelling as the performances are, however, neither the characters nor the plot rise to the surface first. It's the color, pageantry and spectacle — like a particularly bright carnival midway on a pleasant late summer night. The film's two hours and change are consumed by a dance between Julie Taymor and the Beatles — a carefree and often feverish waltz that spins out in a number of wild and often surprising directions.(***½)

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