Oh dear. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE is a bit of an embarassment. Director Julie Taymor of FRIDA fame decides to make a high-concept film. She'll paint a love story against the backdrop of Vietnam and the summers of love, people it with rock stars and set it to re-worked Beatles songs. I was a bit dubious about the concept from the start, mainly because I hate the way in which West End theatres have been filled with lazy musicals. Take MAMMA MIA or WE WILL ROCK YOU or the countless imitators. All they do is stitch together the greatest hits of whoever, making trite love stories out of corny lyrics. The plot and character development are hostage to the next three-minute number. Of course, you could argue that The Beatles would respond better to such a treatment. After all, the songs are of infinitely higher quality than your average pop song and they are peopled with colourful characters. Moreover, the Beatles story is iconic precisely because it reflects back the fall of innocence of a generation and the nasty hangover that was the 70s.
So maybe it could work. Maybe. Maybe not.
Julie Taymor, Dick Clement and Ian le Frenais simply fail to fashion a convincing story that hangs together apart from the songs. Basically, what we have is a very thin love story between an american girl called Lucy and a travelling scouser called Jude. (Yes, yes, it's THAT obvious.) Lucy's elder brother gets shipped off to Vietnam and their flatmate Sadie is in a rock band with a quasi-Hendrix and a sapphic ex-cheerleader. The lovers meet, they hang out, she becomes an activist, he doesn't, he gets deported back to Blighty, and then they all get back together again because, after all, ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE.
It was pretty depressing to see this great anthem, that always struck me as hugely outward looking and political, reworked as introspective, trivial love song. But that pretty much sums up the film. The backdrop may be radical but the action is petty. There are hints early on that the film will tackle the black and gay experience of the decade but it barely scratches the surface. It's examination of the Vietnam war experience is pretty sketchy too.
So, story aside, what of them musical numbers? Most of the songs are straightforward renditions to screen and the visualisations, like the naming of the characters, is pretty ham-fisted. On occasion, the performances are also under-whelming. Joe Anderson as Lucy's brother Max simply can't match the raw energy of HEY JUDE and perhaps surprisingly Bono is pretty lacklustre in his rendition of I AM THE WALRUS. (Although he turns out to be surprisingly good as Doctor Roberts.) Having said that, the only song that I thought was really badly staged was I'VE JUST SEEN A FACE, purely because it seemed to rip on the infinitely better bowling sequences in LEBOWSKI.
There are exceptions though, that almost, but not quite, make this movie worth seeing. I thought the most honest and movingly sung number was TV Carpio's rendition of I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, sung as a love-song of closeted homosexuality. After that, I really liked the grungy angry version of COME TOGETHER, sung by Joe Cocker. Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther clearly also rock. In terms of the visualisation of the numbers, as I said before, I was disappointed to see that most were pretty banal. But I WANT YOU stands out as a bit of fantastic cinema. It's imagined as a song sung by Army recruiters to conscripted young men and its full of great choreography and real imagination. Eddie Izzard was also fantastic as Mr Kite. It's a shame Julie Tayor didn't let rip more often.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE played Toronto 2007 and is already on release in the US and UK. It is realeased in Australia, Slovenia, Turkey, Estonia, Germany, Italy and France in November and in Belgium on December 19th. It is released in Singapore on Janary 10th and in the Netherlands on February 14th 2007.