Sep 16, 2007

Across the Universe

I was prepared to hate this movie. It has cheese written all over it. A musical with Beatles' songs directed by Julie Taymor, who did a pretty cheesy job with Frida. It is cool to have the lowest expectations and then be pleasantly surprised. I ended up hating it much less than I thought I would.
Then again, some of my movie companions expected to love it and were disappointed.
The movie is very uneven. It has some cool musical numbers and some real duds, but it does one thing wonderfully and that is, it reminds us of the absolute, pure beauty of the songs of the Beatles. To the credit of everyone involved in the music, the songs come through in their all pristine gorgeousness. The cast sings them guilelessly and far from this being some kind of let down, the way the songs are produced actually reflects how beautiful the music is. I wanted to burst out singing the entire movie.
The songs sound refreshed. I wonder if they are as powerful if you buy the soundtrack. Maybe not.
Julie Taymor borrows imagery from a bunch of artists like Joseph Cornell, Bill Viola, Michel Gondry, a bit of the Quay Brothers, you name it. Some visuals show a wonderful imagination, like the For the Benefit of Mr. Kite number with Eddie Izzard, or the use of I Want You for an army enlistment sequence. But the movie sways wildly between very imaginative (though mostly derivative) numbers and super pedestrian, obvious unfortunate choices. A Little Help From my Friends (which, with all due respect is not that great a song) is a major dud, as is Revolution (another not that great a song). But Happiness is a Warm Gun, I Want You, Strawberry Fields, and even Let it Be, predictably but powerfully sung as a gospel number, work really well.
The filmmakers are to be commended for choosing a very apt and broad variety of Beatles' songs that eschews some obvious choices, like Yesterday. The arrangements are for the most part effective and inobtrusive; mercifully, nobody tries to reinvent the wheel. The songs shine in all their lovely purity. Evan Rachel Wood turns out to be a better singer than an actor. This girl is very lovely, but she still has not learned not to strain in front of the camera. She is almost incapable of genuine feeling, yet she has a surprisingly lovely singing voice. The real discovery is Jim Sturgess, who plays Jude. Even though he is meant to resemble Paul McCartney, he comes across as far more passionate and ferocious and delivers a strong, credible performance. There is lots of fun in discovering some surprise performers like Bono and Joe Cocker and Eddie Izzard. The plot is quite basic, the pacing is slow, the writing is super obvious and quite lame, but all is bliss when the songs come alive. Whenever no one's singing, the movie seems to grind to a halt.
Luckily, there is a lot of music. Across the Universe is a light, not very demanding or provocative entertainment. It thoroughly lacks any kind of edge. It seems a work seeped in nostalgia, for a time when people stood up for what they believed in, and didn't take it in the ass from The Man, like we spinelessly do today.

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