It’s easy to forget with movies like Bohemian Rhapsody going through the paces so exactly over a decade later, but 2007 was the year cinema exploded the formula of the Rock Movie. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox story skewered all the clichés with surgical precision. I’m Not There got at the truth of Bob Dylan’s life by fragmenting it into the lives of multiple different characters, played by actors of different sexes and races. And while Julie Taymor’s Beatles tribute Across the Universe falls into the occasional clichéd pitfall of The Sixties, it also opens up and recontextualizes the era and its music with the sheer force of her imagination.
In My Year of Flops terms, Across the Universe is a true “fiasco”: an expensive boondoggle where an idiosyncratic filmmaker marshalled all the resources of a major studio for a deeply strange and embarrassingly earnest visual spectacular hung on the barest skeleton of a plot and a cast of no-names. After its inevitable flop, its director, Julie Taymor, was demoted back to the stage world, with the occasional low-budget theater adaptation like The Tempest until she finally clawed her way back to the A-list with the Broadway spectacular Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and….well, we all saw how that went.
Across the Universe’s reputation has failed to rise in the years since it’s been released, and that’s a shame. Taymor is one of the great unsung visionaries of our time, with film masterpieces like Titus and Frida under her belt, and the ability to somehow turn the corporate-sponsored Broadway crowd-pleaser The Lion King into an idiosyncratic and experimental tribute to African theater.
But my assessment of the film might be slanted by my introduction to it. As I often did in my early adolescent days, I checked up on what my mom was watching on my way up to bed. She sat me down and ended up rewinding it to show off the best parts she’d already seen, and then I had to see this and this and this…I was hooked. We eventually bought the soundtrack, which was on near-constant rotation for years. I knew a fair bit about the Beatles through cultural osmosis, of course, but many of the references that seem over-familiar to Across the Universe’s detractors were still fresh to me then, and many of the soundtrack’s covers still eclipse the originals in my consciousness.
Even through older, jaded eyes, I still can’t see anything but a masterpiece. It could have easily been a worn-out greatest hits showcase, but Taymor lets the film determine the music instead of the other way around. And any film that can turn “All You Need Is Love,” the ultimate example of hippie-dippie gobbledygook, into a moment of soaring catharsis is alright in my book. And she finds room for relative deep cuts like “Oh! Darling” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” and builds major setpieces around B-sides and album cuts like “Don’t Let Me Down” and “I Want You.”
When the classics do appear, it’s not just as karaoke-style covers, but performed in new ways that can expose hidden depths in the music or turn it into something completely new. Producers Elliot Goldenthal and T-Bone Burnett (who had earlier masterminded the genre-defining soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?) turn “With a Little Help from My Friends” into a drunken sing-along. As Sadie, Dana Fuchs lets us see what songs like “Helter-Skelter” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” would sound like if they’d been performed by Janis Joplin. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” becomes a soul ballad. T.V. Carpio’s voices cracks and strains to bring out the sadness in “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” transformed here from a joyful pop song into a cry of closeted longing.
And, most chill-inducing of all, Across the Universe brings “Let It Be”s gospel influence from the background to the foreground. The blu-ray includes footage of vocalist Carol Woods pushing herself to tears in her audition, and that pain and power is just as present in the final version. And Taymor’s filmmaking only strengthens the emotional blow, rhythmically cutting between the funeral of a boy caught in the Detroit riots and a soldier killed in Vietnam.
The following number may be even more spectacular, as the child’s bereaved brother arrives in Greenwich Village and sixties veteran Joe Cocker lends his vocals to a bluesier, even more psychedelic version of “Come Together.” Goldenthal struggled to make that iconic bassline his own, and he reveals he created the chugging, unearthly sound that appears in the film by drumming on the back of an acoustic bass with vending-machine bouncy balls on sticks. Taymor uses the song as a backdrop to an expansive tableau of New York, from the regimented life of the “square” business world to the hippie counterculture, to its seamy nightlife.
The 21st-century audience likes to think it’s too cool for musicals, and filmmakers generally sidestep those prejudices in one of two ways. They can make the musical numbers pure fantasy, as in Chicago, or they can go the opposite direction into gritty realism, as in Once or Les Misérables. Across the Universe manages to have it both ways. There’s spectacular, psychedelic blowouts that frequently exist within the drug or paranoia-addled minds of the characters – most spectacularly when Taymor combines Indonesian puppetry and a kind of moving collage for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”
But there’s also minimalist, intimate numbers that you could believe the characters are singing directly to you. The characters don’t just unnaturally burst into song like so many musicals. They absorb their singing into their actions. The “Judey, Judey, Judey!” of “Hey Jude” becomes a man greeting his friend at the airport. The repeated “alrights” in “Revolution #5” fit perfectly as the angry shouts of Jude himself being carried out of an activist meeting hall. And Taymor finds the building blocks of musical fantasy in mundane life. She turns ticking clocks and windshield wipers into percussion. She finds the rhythm of dance in football, basketball, military drills, and the methodical order of crowds moving across the street.
Her characters are musicians, so several Beatles songs appear as in-universe performances. The film opens with the hero and heroine on opposite sides of the world, united by two separate performances of “Hold Me Tight,” each reflecting a different aspect of the Beatles’ early career. All-American girl Lucy is at the prom with a clean-cut boy band in matching suits. Jude is at a grimy basement bar of the kind the Beatles frequented in Berlin and Liverpool, dancing to a rough-edged rock band in greaser jackets. The songs have a way of moving through the story like that – “Hey, Jude” is sung at different points by Jude’s mother, his friend Max, and the children who follow him in the street, all trading off lyrics as they move in and out of the frame.
The blu-ray special features optimistically label Across the Universe’s cast as “The Stars of Tomorrow,” but their work here never opened the doors it should have. Martin Luther McCoy, especially, invests his vocals with all the beauty and emotion of the soul greats; but he doesn’t seem to have recorded any material except for this and the 2004 album that brought him to Taymor’s attention. T.V. Carpio’s most notable later performance was in Taymor’s disastrous Turn Off the Dark. Though his smooth vocals stood out far more than his frequently unlikable performance as Jude, Joe Sturgess seems to have focused his attention on acting. Even though the main cast were all unknowns, Across the Universe also features some great celebrity performances in minor roles. Bono, especially, skewers his own rock-star swagger for a brilliant parody of the sixties’ many gurus as Dr. Robert, bringing out the stoned, stream-of-consciousness poetry in dialogue like, “We’re navigators, we’re aviators, eatin’ taters, masturbatin’ alligators, bombardiers, we got no fears, won’t shed no tears, we’re pushin’ the frontiers of transcendental perception.”
But, as it always is with Taymor, the real star here is the visuals. An ethereal underwater ballet set to Abbey Road’s “Something.” “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” performed by Salma Hayek, and Salma Hayek, and Salma Hayek. A retro bowling alley that turns into a neon-lit disco, dancers sliding across the lanes and leaping between them. And if Taymor’s vision of the sixties counterculture is rose-tinted nostalgia, she puts in the work to make you believe it, turning the apartment the characters share into a work of living art, and Greenwich Village into a technicolor wonderland. Across the Universe may not have found its audience in 2007, but it certainly deserves to find one now.