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January 30, 2011

Across the Universe

One can only imagine the weight that director Julie Taymor must have felt when she first started to plan and write Across the Universe. After all, trying to condense thirteen albums’ worth of arguably the most recognizable and loaded music after World War II into just over two hours of film is a nearly insurmountable task. Logic would dictate that, no matter what insightful decisions are made, content will invariably be left out and fans will inevitably question inclusions. That being said, Across the Universe does what any good film should do: it focuses the viewer’s attention on the screen as an ecstatic visual pleasure. In doing so, it manages to support and retell, though importantly, not recreate, the songs of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The story is no revolution: Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels westward across the ocean in order to find his father — or, more accurately, to find himself. Once in America, he runs into Max (Joe Anderson), whom he befriends quickly. After a little help from Max’s friends, Jude and Max become inseparable, which prompts the film’s narrative hook: Jude and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) are introduced and soon fall in the kind of love that seems to only be able to exist circa 1965. From there, the happy new couple must negotiate their own personal turmoils, paralleling a changing America set against the social unrest of the sixties. Meanwhile, Max is drafted to Vietnam, JoJo (Martin Luther) and Sadie (Dana Fuchs) negotiate the winding road to stardom, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio) copes with her lesbian desires.

It is almost as if the superficial plot becomes secondary to the power of the film as a cinematic experience, which is where the strength of Across the Universe can be found. A scene like Prudence’s slow-motion walk through the football gauntlet, all the while singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” live while beautiful bodies dance through the air with a sublime choreography modeled on the natural movements of football, betrays the film as almost an exercise in the conscious limits in movement. Similarly, the highly expressionistic effects during “I am the Walrus” or the deliciously disjointed display during “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite,” starring an excellent Eddie Izzard, bring to the Beatles’ music a moving joyful playfulness.

To the actors’ credit, most of the songs were sung live, which adds a great degree of authenticity to the performance. Subtle details, like Lucy’s lightly quivering chin during “If I Fell,” weight the songs in the present of the film, which does much to avoid the songs being merely campy and hollow covers. Instead, the songs feel and look as if they could have naturally existed in this parallel universe where the Beatles were not. And while it would be hard to justify any singular performance as comparable to the original, the film actually does much to avoid the comparison in the first place by ensuring that the film is not merely a commercial vehicle for these songs; the sound and image track are seamlessly married to create the alternate history, which is believable and recognizable, yet wholly not ours. This disconnect is precisely where the film succeeds, immersing the viewer in a cinematic experience that is an attraction in every sense of the word.

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