There’s nothing quite as depressing as watching a bunch of clean-cut young theater geeks pretend they’re tripping on LSD. The movie version of Hair (1979) had its Disney-fied drug sequences, and so does Across the Universe, which does for the 1960s what Moulin Rouge did for the Belle Epoque: It takes an exciting, gritty era and turns it into a landscape the leading lady can gambol through without mussing her expensive blow-out.
But also like Moulin Rouge, this movie wasn’t made by hacks, and its sheer audacity may make it worth seeing. The question is: How much tolerance do you have for a Beatles musical where the hero hails from Liverpool and is named Jude (Jim Sturgess), the heroine is Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), and a girl named Prudence has to be coaxed out of a closet? Director Julie Taymor (Frida, Titus, Broadway’s The Lion King) takes 33 Fab Four songs, recontextualizes them in a love story about the ’60s, and gives them to her young cast to sing. Then she pours on the daring, Day-Glo visuals, with big, Broadway-style numbers alternating with animated sequences and psychedelia.
Anyone who’s seen the trailer has already witnessed some of the most striking shots in the movie: the dancers who leap in sync down a bowling alley; the white-robed wraiths who writhe in the sea as the hero sings the title song. Taymor is an artist, and she achieves the sublime trippiness she’s going for in several numbers, such as one where Jude’s avant-garde art project, which involves crushing strawberries on canvas, merges with TV footage of Vietnam. (Yes, he’s singing “Strawberry Fields.”) The LSD and street- protest sequences feature cameos from the familiar giant stars of Bread and Puppet’s Domestic Resurrection Circus: Taymor, who interned with Peter Schumann’s troupe early in her career, has said in interviews that she “recreated” the puppet designs for the film.
But Universe’s generic storyline and literalist approach to the songs pull it down. Even a relatively simple love song like George Harrison’s “Something” outclasses the relationship it illustrates here. (Jude and Lucy hit a rough patch when she thinks she wants a revolution, but otherwise it’s True Love.) The opening of “A Day in the Life” is used for its anthemic punch, but Taymor turns a song about growing numb to the incessant stream of bad and banal news into one about freaking when you read bad news that directly affects you. This script is to the Beatles’ lyrics what Muzak is to their sound: It takes the obvious parts and abandons the rest.
Most of the actors are relative unknowns who can sing. Sturgess gives the songs as much depth as his wafer-thin character will allow, and his fellow Brit Joe Anderson, as Lucy’s Ivy League dropout brother, brings a punky kick to tunes such as “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” As the bobby-soxer turned revolutionary, Wood has a nice singing voice, but when she tells her conservative mother, “We should all be radical!” she sounds as if she’s recommending a new hair gel.
For folks young enough to be hearing many of these songs for the first time, Across the Universe could be a great gateway experience. More jaded viewers may wonder how long it’ll be before we get the Nirvana musical that features a chorus of mental patients droning “Lithium,” or an albino and a biracial character who show up just to lend logic to the lyrics of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”