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Across the Universe’ big on heart, short on brain

By Sam Potter

The musical, it seems, is in full force once again. After nearly 30 years out of the cinematic limelight, modern-day tours de force such as “Chicago,” “Moulin Rouge” and “Hairspray” have made the genre fun and palatable for everyone.

So, naturally when artsy-fartsy director Julie Taymor — fresh from pulling off the impossible task of producing her live action Broadway interpretation of “The Lion King” — announces a cinematic musical based on the music of The Beatles, one can’t help but be intrigued. The trailers seem full of attractive young people prancing around to souped-up renditions of John, Paul, George and Ringo’s classic tunes. It looks colorful, vibrant, full of motion and life. But for the life of me, nobody could ever tell me what “Across the Universe” was about.

There’s a reason for that: “Across the Universe” is one of those rare movies driven almost solely by emotion and nostalgia. Logic is rarely factored into what little story exists. It’s a huge, sloppy, pulsating valentine to the ’60s and the quirkiness and romanticism of The Beatles. If you like those two things, “Across the Universe” will be a treat.

The film opens with a scruffy young man, Jude (Jim Sturgess), who sings a line from Lennon-McCartney’s “Girl.” He sings: “Is there anybody going to listen to my story all about the girl who came to stay?”

Well, I suppose we are, right?

The film quickly treats us to a musical number (natch) in which we meet both Jude and a smart, American girl named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Both are facing huge life changes: Jude is leaving his girlfriend to study art at Princeton and find the father who abandoned him. Lucy is in love with a young G.I. heading to fight in Vietnam. Given the emphasis placed on the pair, one can only guess what will happen to the G.I. and eventually happen to Jude and Lucy.

Jude meets up with his wayward father and reconciles with him. His roommate Max (Joe Anderson) takes Jude home to experience the American tradition of Thanksgiving, where Jude meets and falls in love with Lucy. Max, infuriated by his being forced to go to Princeton, convinces Jude to run away with him to live the life of a bohemian in Greenwich Village. There, they rent a room from a sultry, Janis Joplin-esque rock singer named Sadie (newcomer Dana Fuchs) and revel in the self-destruction, psychedelia and partying which epitomized the ’60s. Along with this comes the hulking dread of the Vietnam War, and all the characters are affected by its devastation.

The narrative, for the most part, doesn’t go much farther than that. Events transpire, but most of them are inconsequential, particularly the twists and turns Jude and Lucy’s romance takes. A complex and compelling narrative isn’t what Taymor’s attention is fixed on. Many critics of the musical genre complain that in many musicals, one can feel a musical number coming, that the story grinds to a halt while we sit through a three-to-five-minute number and then proceed with story for another three or so minutes.

“Across the Universe” is a prime example of this.

While some of the numbers, such as “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” artfully progress the narrative and provide huge dollops of visual splendor, others seem entirely arbitrary, placed in the film merely because The Beatles wrote so many damned amazing songs that they just had to be in there.

This is the film’s biggest flaw and will likely cause a huge division in its audience. Beatles fans (like myself) will have fun picking out the multitude of references and the cleverness with which Taymor and her writers weave the lyrics and ideas of the songs into a pastoral snapshot of the beauty and ugliness of the ’60s. Think of “Across the Universe” as “Moulin Rouge” and “Forrest Gump” mixed together. Casual Beatles fans may have some difficulty figuring out why certain numbers are included in the narrative or why some characters have such peculiar names (Prudence? Jojo?).

I found myself getting caught up in the romance, nostalgia, psychedelia and sheer energy of the music. Rarely have I had this much pure “fun” at the movies. The weak story and often extremely laughable dialogue sometimes pulled me out of the experience (Max’s dinner table argument with his father is unintentionally ridiculous). Many story elements are inconsequential and unnecessary (the character of Prudence, for example). But the impressive performances (Evan Rachel Wood, as always, is exceptional), outstanding singing, visual creativity and warm, rollicking vibe made the film impossible to not recommend.

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