Retrospective Film Review: Julie Taymor’s ‘Across the Universe’

  • Words: Brinley Knopf

Across the Universe (2007) directed by Julie Taymor is a vagrant; a wanderer between events, as much a beatnik as the generational 1960’s people it kindredly stories. Set during the Vietnam War and to the roster of The Beatles, it’s at once a strange but harmonizing amalgam; a circus of kaleidoscopes, swirls of color. You think, not once, as you watch stupefied – am I tripping balls?

It begins with Jude (Hey Jude; Jim Sturgess). He’s on a beach, grey as the waves. He asks, is there anybody going to listen to my story? He’s singing Girl, from Rubber Soul. His eyes are dark with a story, which he tells, in great and faithful detail.

Jude, from Liverpool, goes to America to find his father. His father, who’d been stationed in the UK in WWII, fathered a son he knew nothing of. He works as a custodian at Princeton; he has a wife and two kids. But Jude doesn’t want to be a family with a nuclear father-son relationship. “I’m here,” he says, “so we both know the other one exists.”

While at Princeton, Jude meets Max (Maxwell’s Silver Hammer; Joe Anderson), a college student with wild eyes and a shaggy haircut to match, who becomes Jude’s home-away-from-home, as much a family as any. Max has a sister, Lucy (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds; Evan Rachel Wood), who is The Girl. Jude and Lucy meet when Max goes home for Thanksgiving and right away, Jude falls for her, both figuratively and waxed lyrically. Max announces at the Thanksgiving table that he’s now a college dropout, which is about as well-received as a punch to the nose. “What you do defines who you are,” protests Uncle Teddy. “No, Uncle Teddy,” says Max. “Who you are defines what you do.” Jude, the British guest from across the pond, offers, “Surely it’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it.”

From there, Max and Jude go off to New York, to live in an apartment in The Village. They rent from Sadie (Sexy Sadie; Dana Fuchs) who is a deputized face and likeness of Janis Joplin; the Mother Hen, the landlord. We meet Jojo (Get Back; Martin Luther McCoy), who auditions to be the guitarist of Sadie’s band; the ghost of Jimi Hendrix, he’d left Detroit on a bus after his brother died in the 12th Street Riot. Prudence (Dear Prudence; T.V. Carpio), left Ohio, shunning herself for her sexuality, hitchhikes cross-country and comes into the apartment through the bathroom window one night with the rain. The mixed-bag of live-ins reaches wholeness when Lucy, before she goes off to college, comes to New York for the summer to tell Max he’s been drafted, right after hearing of the death of her boyfriend, Daniel, who’d died in the war right before he’d about to have been deployed.

From here, in New York, as Max drives taxis and Jude is an artist for commission, Lucy gets involved with antiwar protests; going from a clueless girl dancing at prom to a clued-in woman who life – through her boyfriend and brother – becomes ineradicable from the war. Jude is apolitical – watching, almost, as the world falls around him, dodging the bricks. But Lucy and Jude fall in love, anyway. Meanwhile – Sadie goes solo, Jojo wars against it, and her band splits up. Prudence falls in love with Sadie, but Sadie has only ever had eyes for Jojo since he came to New York.

The covers of the Beatles songs reintroduce the band to the children of the Baby Boomers who worshipped them. Dare I say it? Will those of the bygone but never-forgotten Beatlemania come and throw bricks at my windows? Will I be ostracized, given the Pink Slip by the fan club? Some of the renditions I like better than the orignals. I love Jim Sturgess’s voice. My favorite songs of the soundtrack: Because, Let It Be, Across the Universe, Hey Jude, Strawberry Fields Forever, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, She’s So Heavy and Hold Me Tight. The songs fit the plot – for instance, Let It Be is sung by Jojo’s little brother during a riot, strangely still amid the helter-skelter anarchy around him. It’ll give you chills. She’s So Heavy is a mosaic of choreography, a group number when Max is in bootcamp before Vietnam – during, he’s in his boxers, carrying the Statue of Liberty on his shoulders. It’s a powerful message. Because features, Jude, Lucy, Max, Prudence, Sadie and Jojo lying on their backs in a wheat field, harmonizing hypnotically; I swear, you’ll be spellbound. 

Across the Universe is deeply weird. The Love Story is just ‘Uptown Girl’ in that Lucy is upper-crust and Ivy-League, where Jude is a poor starving artist with hippie-hair. You’ll either fall deeply in love and play the soundtrack on an endless loop, or you’ll be so off-put and in a haze that you’ll think, what just happened for the last two hours? Where was I? Maybe it all depends on how you feel about a movie-musical where actor-singers spend two hours covering The Beatles – a basis that, irrevocably, invites beef.