Film Reviews

Across the Universe Julie Taymor

Rating - 6/10

The idea of setting a musical about the Sixties to a soundtrack of Beatles songs is perfectly apt and ultimately doomed. It's appropriate because no other group reflected and/or influenced the cultural momentum of the decade so completely and appealingly. Dylan came closest, but he skipped out on psychedelia entirely and had the career misfortune of surviving past 1969. On the other hand, the concept is doomed from the start because the director has to wrench a compelling narrative out of songs never intended for that purpose. Fortunately for Julie Taymor (Frida) the songs are flexible enough to work with and so the result is not a complete disaster. Taymor actually gets some of her best moments out of subverting the expectations we bring in with us, like when a cheerleader is singing I Want To Hold Your Hand to a classmate that turns out to be a girl. There is something to be said about the universality and pliability of the Beatles songs and their sentiments and Taymor is playful, milking ironic or alternate meanings out of lyrics long since imprinted on our brains. She has great set pieces turning I Want You (She's so Heavy) into an army recruitment extravaganza and Happiness is a Warm Gun into a VA hospital fantasia complete with Salma Hayek shooting vets up with morphene. Bravo; lord knows somebody needs to snap us out of the current spell of military worship we are sleeping through.

But, and this is a big but, we all know there are few things more annoying to non-baby boomers than a preachy, aging hippie, and Taymor's need to sweep up every issue into a big pile and stick a Beatles song on top ironically ends up shortchanging the issues if not the songs. Today's lesson - war bad, drugs good. Tomorrow - segregation, feminism and gay rights. Bono (great singer, annoying hipster) turns in a decent I Am the Walrus performance in a sequence which does nothing to dispel the idiotic hippie notion that the world would be wonderful place if we all dropped acid and took to the highways. Taymor fares better when she's not trying to press a point and she lets her visual flair accentuate the tepid love story. So a version of I've Just Seen a Face set in a bowling alley is suitably exuberant and scenes for With a Little Help from My Friends, If I Fell and Across the Universe are suitably sweet and charming. I must admit I had high hopes when early in the movie Joe Cocker appears in three humorous roles belting out Come Together in fine voice, but those hopes were nearly shattered by a visually interesting but utterly pointless and frankly embarrassing performance of Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite by Eddie Izzard. That one had me suffering painful flashbacks of the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton in full marching band regalia.

Ultimately we are left with a couple of hours of great songs stitched onto an Afterschool Special plot with an occasional flash of bravura musical moviemaking thrown in for good measure. A very mixed bag indeed.