Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2007

Magical mystery tour-de-force

Forget the flaws -- Taymor's 'Across the Universe' is an unparalleled musical vision

Across the Universe
Revolution Studios
Director: Julie Taymor
Screenplay: Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther, T.V. Carpio, Bono and Eddie Izzard
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 11 minutes
Now playing in most cities
(out of four)

Julie Taymor's Across the Universe is a film that can't be dismissed. Of course, that won't stop anyone from dismissing it. And dismiss it they have. "Messy." "All over the place." "Weird." "Incoherent." "Self-indulgent." "Cheesy." Or my personal favorite: "Gauche."

Well, I've got a thesaurus, too. While you could make the case that Across the Universe is all or some of the above things (OK, I'm not so sure about gauche, but the rest of them maybe), it is also bold, ballsy, exciting, beautiful, vibrant, ambitious, unique, eye-opening, brash, visionary and utterly unlike anything else that has opened in theatres in years.

That is not to say it is "better" than anything that has opened in theatres in years -- the film is nowhere near perfect. But it is also more absolutely alive than almost anything I've seen this year. You can practically hear its heart beating.

Taymor has never been one to shy away from going all-out -- this is the director behind Titus, for crying out loud. Across the Universe, her ode to the Beatles and the entire tumultuous/romantic '60s universe they inhabited and represented, is an incredibly unique, kaleidoscopic musical epic that likely encompasses every bit of energy and passion that Taymor could muster.

This is the kind of movie that is so creative, it even finds creative ways to fail. What does work works brilliantly; but even what doesn't -- even that stuff is unlike anything else you're likely to see.

Weaknesses in the film are criticisms I can understand -- but what I can't understand is how those who love and cherish film can't at least champion someone like Taymor who has the audacity to make something as crazy-out-of-control-ambitious as this. Used to be those what tried such things were called artists.

Nowadays, some people (certainly not all) are more likely to recommend the safe, inoffensive formula picture that doesn't do anything "wrong" (but doesn't do anything interesting) than something with cojones. Me, I prefer the cojones -- filmmakers are only worth their salt if they take chances.

Across the Universe utilizes almost everything you could possibly utilize about the Beatles and their era -- sometimes with nothing more than mere passing mentions or background details in the production design. But everything is very deliberate.

The characters are Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and her British boyfriend Jude (Jim Sturgess), and among their friends/relatives/lovers/eccentric artistic friends are Max[well] (Joe Anderson), [Sexy] Sadie (Dana Fuchs), [Dear] Prudence (T.V. Carpio) and JoJo [left his home in Tucson, Arizona] (Martin Luther). Lines from the Fab Four's lyrics are incorporated into plot details and dialogue. And I have no idea whether or not it's a coincidence that the film is distributed by Revolution Studios.

And in case you were wondering, yes -- a character actually does come in through the bathroom window. No stone has been left unturned.

The visual vibrance of the entire film is something to behold in and of itself -- Taymor has taken an endless supply of period details and incorporated them into a visual style that includes animation, psychedelia, surrealism, rock opera, you name it. And naturally, there are plenty of nods -- not just in name, but in visuals and comic sensibility -- to the Beatles' own great films, A Hard Day's Night and Yellow Submarine.

The characters and subplots are merely along for the ride. They are almost universally well-cast -- and have to be, considering what they have to compete with in cinematography and production design and what they're asked to do as performers (sing, dance, swim, etc.)

Out of this almost dreamlike phantasmagoria of songs and cultural references come some incredible, even inexplicable musical numbers -- my personal favorites were "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," "Happiness is a Warm Gun," "I've Just Seen a Face," "Because," "Let it Be" and Eddie Izzard's brilliantly idiosyncratic rendition of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite."

Some criticisms I have to agree with -- at times, the film takes a far too literal interpretation of the lyrics, and yes, there are times when events and even characters come across as shallow amid all the visual and musical flights of fancy. But that's only because Taymor is constantly experimenting and trying new things with this film. So what if all her risks don't pay off? The ones that do are worth it.

Some have criticized the cliched love story or the hackneyed melodrama of the storyline, or the fact that it only pays "lip service" to the events of the 1960s -- but when the "plot," as it were, is clearly only a platform for bigger things, what kind of criticism is that?

This is a musical. It is an expressionistic representation of a time and a place and a feeling -- rarely are musicals known for in-depth character study or labyrinthine plots. Someone who uses that as a primary argument against the film is grossly missing the point. It would be like blasting Chicago for not offering an incisive-enough critique of America's criminal-justice system.

Imperfect as it is, Across the Universe is an exceptional alternative to the norm. In an era where musicals are trying to make a comeback, this should be regarded as a breakthrough.

I've seen countless movies in recent memory that fit a certain description. They're perfectly fine, I guess. Maybe they're fairly well-acted, they don't do anything tragically wrong, they don't offend, they stick to a formula and do just what is expected.

Examples: Resurrecting the Champ, Reservation Road, World Trade Center, Gridiron Gang, The Devil Wears Prada, A Good Year, Catch a Fire, The Painted Veil, Glory Road, the list could go on. These aren't "bad" movies, per se -- but they are fantastically uninteresting, every one. They are masterpieces of comfortable mediocrity. Fast food.

Movies need more ambition. There's nothing wrong with formulas and fulfilling expectations -- but it would be nice if once in a while a film broke the mold, or at least tried to. Across the Universe more than fulfills that description.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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