A Look Back: Across the Universe
A Beautiful Style…but Not Much Story
The Beatles were a band that no other band can rival. From 1963 to 1970, they released 13 albums in their “core catalogue”, made five movies (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, and Let It Be), released countless other popular singles that never appeared on one of their major albums (“Hey Jude”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Revolution”, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand, etc.), and they toured consistently for a number of years, until deciding to stop in 1966 to focus more on making music. And that’s really just the bullet points.
Across the Universe came out a little bit before my peak Beatles craze, but once I finally caught up to it I loved it. I first saw the film when I was around seventeen, and I remember being in love with the visuals, the music, the cast, and the overall direction of the film. On paper, it’s a movie that seems like it was hard to produce for 2007. A big-budget musical period piece with mostly unknown actors at the time and a script that included some of the greatest Beatles songs. It also had a female director attached, which is a great thing, but this was a rarity for the time period. There had been movies before that featured a significant amount of Beatles music, but none like this.
I really wanted to love this again. Like, I really did. Is there a vision here? Yes. Is there a great visual style? Yes. Is there a story? Eh…somewhat. For the first half of the film, there is a really good story unfolding. We are getting to see this group of outcasts grow up and live through this cultural shift in America, while the phenomenal music catalog of The Beatles is being interwoven through the story. The film also has a really talented cast. They are able to pull off most of the songs while also having great character moments outside of the music. The music and story work very well together throughout the first part, but once the film starts to really try and mirror the musical history of The Beatles through its visual style, it begins to go off the rails. At a certain moment in the film, it begins to drift into a more experimental and almost avant-garde form of storytelling. There is nothing wrong with that, but the tone shifts, and the overall film becomes less of a story and more of a series of highly expensive music videos.
The story focuses on an ensemble of friends who are all going down different paths in their lives. At the core of the story is the relationship between Jude (Jim Sturgess), a British immigrant from Liverpool, and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), an American sweetheart turned anti-war activist. These are the two people we are following throughout the entire story, hoping they end up together. The other supporting characters that surround Lucy and Jude are Max (Joe Anderson), Lucy’s older brother who is drafted into the Vietnam War, Sadie (Dana Fuchs), the sexy, bohemian Joplin-esque singer who rents her apartment out to everyone, JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), a Hendrix-esque guitar player who has a relationship with Sadie, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a tenant of Sadie’s that is struggling with her sexuality. The story does a really good job of setting up the characters and the struggles they have, but after a little while, their development is pretty much forgotten, and most of their appearances come only in musical form.
Musicals are a very tricky thing. The people who hate them don’t like that people just break out into song. On the surface, that’s what it can sometimes feel like, especially if the music isn’t used correctly to tell the story. A character in a musical should mainly only break into song because their emotions are so high that the only way they can express them is through song. You can’t just throw songs in there just for the sake of it.
For the first half of Across the Universe they follow this basic musical rule. The Beatles songs that are sung by the characters are used perfectly. They fit with the story, they have meaning to the characters, and it feels like singing them is the only way the characters can fully express themselves.
The songs are used as a way to reveal something about the characters, and in turn, pushes the story forward. There are a few fantastical elements in the first half, but for the most part the scenes and songs are fairly grounded in the world. What also helps is that there are dialogue scenes in between the songs that are just as revealing as the songs are (i.e. Jude meeting his father for the first time). As the story progresses, though, those scenes aren’t as present, and when they are, they feel forced. For the last twenty minutes of the film, the formula that is used in the first half of them starts to come back, but it isn’t as strong (even though “All You Need is Love” gets pretty close).
I have stated it many times in this article, but the first half of this film works really well. The characters are being developed well, the songs move the story forward, and there is an established aesthetic that goes incredibly well with the film. And then this happened…
If you take this as its own thing, then it works fairly well. I don’t hate his performance, and I don’t hate the aesthetic of it either…but it is so random. It does nothing to move the story or the characters forward. There are a few moments before that don’t work as well either, like when Max is drafted into the army, or how right before Eddie Izzard is front and center, the group is introduced to LSD by Bono. When Bono is introduced the film, that is when the film starts to lose steam, even though he gives a good performance. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, however, is where the movie comes to a screeching halt. It takes a break from the story so that the characters can do drugs together out in a field as Eddie Izzard dances around blue giants. This doesn’t make sense to me, because just half an hour before we were seeing beautiful and character/story developing renditions of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, “I’ve Just Seen a Face”, and “Let it Be”. John Lennon’s lyrics were already weird to begin with in “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, but this scene just made them even weirder. Then you have the group lying in the middle of a field singing another Lennon song, “Because”. The film just starts to take a lot of weird turns, and it is never able to fully recover.
Even though the film falters around the halfway mark, it still has a number of good performances throughout film. From an acting standpoint, Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess are the big standouts. They have good chemistry together. Musically, everyone from the main cast really does a great job within the film. I love Martin Luther McCoy’s rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, and how the filmmakers are able to make it relate to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s actually one of the best things about this film. They are able to bring new meaning to a number of the songs. I think T.V. Carpio’s rendition of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” is beautiful and heartbreaking while also being new and refreshing.
After finishing my re-watch, my initial thoughts of the film were not great, but it is a film that has still stayed with me. There are flaws to this film, especially with the latter half of it, but something about it kind of works. If you know The Beatles history, then you will be impressed by how they are able to mirror the evolution of The Beatles musical sound. The movie starts off with an early Beatle hit called “Hold Me Tight”, and as the characters sing it, we see the world they live in before everything changes. Slowly, as the world starts to change, the visual style and the sound begin to change as well. We get weird songs like “Because”, “I Am the Walrus”, and “Happiness is a Warm Gun” during weird moments of the story. The movie focuses less on story and it becomes more on being a visual art piece that is woven together through Beatles music. Is it perfect? No, but it is definitely ambitious. Julie Taymor does a commendable job at tackling this type of film, and it is a must-watch if you are Beatles fanatic.
Is It Important Today?
In one of the behind-the-scenes videos for the film, Julie Taymor said one of the greatest things that will come out of the film will be the introduction of the cast to the moviegoing audiences. I think that is somewhat true, because some of the actors did go on to have successful acting careers. Most, however, did not have much of a career in film after the release of Across the Universe. Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther McCoy (now known as Martin Luther) continued their careers in the music world, but they did not star in another project of the same magnitude as Across the Universe again. Martin Luther never acted again, and Fuchs only acted in two more small projects. T.V. Carpio and Joe Anderson never really had major careers in film, but they have both had successful careers in television. Carpio appeared on such shows as The Client List, Bloodline, and Rizzoli & Isles. Anderson went on to have major roles on such shows as The River, Outsiders, and Hannibal.
The two biggest stars to come out of Across the Universe were definitely Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood. It is apparent when watching the film that these two would have major careers, especially Evan Rachel Wood. Across the Universe was Sturgess’ first American film, and after the release he would go on to star in films like 21, One Day, and another incredibly ambitious film, Cloud Atlas. Recently, he has moved more into television. Evan Rachel Wood is probably the biggest star out of the group, and that’s mainly because of her current stint on the HBO show, Westworld. However, after Across the Universe, her biggest role in a major film was when she played the estranged daughter of Mickey Rourke in Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler.
Julie Taymor has only directed two films since finishing Across the Universe, and neither were as big as Across the Universe. I wonder if Across the Universe is to blame for that. The film was not a critical success, nor was it a box office success. It was actually a box office failure. Some might even say that it was one of the many films that were responsible for the downfall of Revolution Studios. But, I think Taymor is a talented director. She is mostly known for her Broadway work like The Lion King and her Shakespeare productions. She is also know for her participation in the infamous Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. (She was the original director of the production before being forced to leave during the show’s preview run.) Even though Across the Universe is nowhere near a perfect film, you can tell that the person behind the film has a vision, and that’s hard to find sometimes.
The last, and most important, piece to the Across the Universe legacy is The Beatles themselves. For a band that formed over 50 years ago, I feel they are still as relevant today as they were at the film’s release. Three years after the film was released, The Beatles’ music was released on iTunes for purchase. Then, at the end of 2015, The Beatles’ music was finally available to stream on such services as Spotify and Apple Music. Today’s musicians and music fans still cite The Beatles as one of the greatest bands of all time, even if some people think it is cliche to love The Beatles.
Across the Universe is a film that has a number of entertaining and emotional moments. It’s visual style is beautifully meticulous. But, as the film continues down the rabbit hole with the more outlandish moments, it begins to lose its way from a story perspective. It becomes more of a string of music videos and less of a cohesive story. To some, it will beloved for its ambition and flair, while to others it might be considered a bit of a mess. I find myself stuck right in the middle. I marvel at it’s style and ambition, but I’m left wondering what could have been with this film.