Maxwell Edison’s own silver hammer could not have come down any harder on Across the Universe than did the critics. Director Julie Taymor’s Beatles-scored musical, which expanded to a semi-wide national run this past weekend, was just asking for it. The Village Voice‘s Ella Taylor saw the film’s ’60s themes as "smugly condescending to a presumptively know-nothing audience." The Boston Globe‘s Ty Burr slammed its "blinding combination of artistic ambition, excess, and plain old bad taste." EW’s Owen Gleiberman called it a "goofy, pompous, annoyingly boomer-myopic Fab Four musical" and "a Hairy cliché fest." Between those kinds of pans, an admittedly horrific trailer, and a soundtrack album that’s fairly nondescript on its own, you may feel like you can safely give this one an all-things-must-pass.
So heed these words, before you write it off like a 1980s Ringo solo album: If you happen to be a Beatlemaniac, or a movie-musicals aficionado — and most especially if, like me, you fall into both camps — you need to get to a theater to see it. This is not to be so contrary as to claim it’s a great movie. It really is aggravating as hell, and I don’t know that there’s anything in the above blurbs that I’d directly contradict. (I recall looking at my watch at about the one-hour point and, upon realizing that the thing wasn’t even half-over yet, letting out an involuntary groan.) But there are individual musical sequences in Taymor’s movie that are at least as magical and transporting as anything I’ve seen on screen in the last couple of years. Most of us make up our minds whether we like a movie or not within the first 15 minutes, and for good reason; a filmmaker who doesn’t know how to start a movie rarely knows how to finish one. But Across the Universe is radically uneven beyond any other uneven movie I can think of. Appreciating what works about it involves abandoning any of your usual all-or-nothing impulses, living in the moment, and being able to separate what sucked 10 minutes ago from what is transcendent right this second.
Taymor really excels at pulling off two distinctly different kindsof musical numbers. The first is a kind of extremely naturalisticsoliloquy. Some of the least showy — but best — sequences in Across the Universefocus on one character, who isn’t so much dramatizing a Beatles song asinternalizing it, in the same way we do when we walk down the streetand truly and completely feel the favorite song that’s goingthrough our heads. One of these comes early on when T.V. Carpio, as ahigh school cheerleader, walks across a very busy football field whilesinging "I Want to Hold Your Hand," not as the frothy tune we know buta slow ballad of excruciatingly unrequited desire. (The fact that theobject of her longing turns out to be a fellow cheerleader is almostimmaterial.) And there are a couple of numbers which leave Evan RachelWood all alone on-camera, singing a familiar song like "If I Fell,"where between the courageously long takes and slowed-down arrangement,we believe that a tune that long ago passed into the realm of baby-boomwallpaper can actually mean something individual to one person, again.(Speaking of falling, I’ll admit that I kind of fell for Wood in thismovie, much to my surprise, after thinking I’d never be able to watchher again without picturing Marilyn Manson on her arm, or on some otherbody part.)
There are other numbers here that deliver in a fairly old-fashionedvein, without being either stark or phantasmagorical—like "Hold MeTight," a long-distance duet set simultaneously at an American sockhopand a Cavern Club-like European tavern, and "It Won’t Be Long," whichhas Wood interacting with her girlfriends a la the "Tell me more, tellme more!" parts of Grease.
I also liked how Taymor went off on the other end of the scale withthe outrightly surreal stuff that predominates later in the movie. (ButI grew up on Ken Russell indulgence-fests like Listzomania and Tommy,so sue me.) If you abhor the very idea of a Vietnam battlesequence-cum-musical number, then by all means, steer clear. But partof the marvel of a sequence like "I Want You (She’s So Heavy)" — anelongated military conscription number that begins with an Uncle Sam "IWant You" poster coming to life — is how, for all its over-the-topimagery, it’s choreographed and shot like an old-fashioned Hollywoodmusical.
I’d be shocked if I learned that Taymor hadn’t studied theclassic films of Stanley Donen, Vicente Minnelli, et al. before makingher own excursion into the genre. Say what you will about the possiblyoverheated conception of these scenes, but she knows where to put thecamera, do a tracking shot, and block choreography. This may sound odd,but I even started fantasizing about what the movie version of Hairspraywould have been like as directed by Taymor. Okay, so there’s not muchevidence she commands an overpowering sense of humor, which could haveposed a problem. But what was most disconcerting about Hairspraywas how over-edited it all seemed, to the point that it was hard to geta consistent sense of the dancing, even though the choreographer (AdamShankman) was also the director. Taymor at least heeds Fred Astaire’sadvice about letting us see some whole bodies on screen, and for morethan a second and a half at a time. And what a pleasure that is towatch.
Except when it’s not. Because Taymor is devoted to putting entiresongs on screen and not chopping them up into medleys, a lot of thesequences overstay their welcome. When lead actor Jim Sturgess launchesinto "With a Little Help from My Friends," it’s exceptionallywell-staged for something that could have been even more static, butyou know exactly what you’re going to get: three and a half minutes ofa guy boisterously singing to his buddies about, um, how glad he is tohave their help. Inventing characters who are basically caricatures ofJanis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix — only, super-nice andnon-self-destructive — to sing material like "Oh Darling" and "WhyDon’t We Do It in the Road" makes for some awfully tiresome passages.And the critics haven’t been wrong in excoriating the many sequencesset to "Let It Be," "Revolution," "Helter Skelter," and the like thatfrequently threaten to turn the picture into "A Child’s Primer on the1960s."
Stephen Holden of the New York Times had an experience of the movie that was closer to mine than most. "Somewhere around its midpoint, Across the Universecaptured my heart," he wrote, "and I realized that falling in love witha movie is like falling in love with another person. Imperfections,however glaring, become endearing quirks once you’ve tumbled. Thatsurrender is the kind of commitment that Ms. Taymor, a true believer inthe magic of art, asks of an audience." I related, up to a point —except that I kept falling back out of love with Across the Universe.And back in, then back out… kind of like most real relationships. Somereaders might chime in that what I’m describing makes for the perfectDVD rental, where you can just skip through the dross to the good parts— right? Except without the kind of surrender Holden is describing, thesort apt to take place only in a darkened theater with everything elseshut out, I’m not sure whether even the most transformative parts willwork. So my advice to you, brave Beatlemaniacs and movie-musicalmavens, is to get to a theater, be perfectly discriminating about whatworks for you and what doesn’t… and, when you do get to the magical parts — those bits and pieces that remind us how alive to allour senses a great song can make us — turn off your mind, relax, andfloat downstream, even if just for a few minutes at a time.