Something needs to change Julie Taymor's world, or at least her directorial aesthetic, after this sentimental musical that uses Beatles songs to tell a trite story of love and rebellion in the 1960s. We've been there, done that with a far more coherent film (and with more appropriate songs) — Milos Forman's adaptation of Hair. The actors sing the songs well for the most part here, but they're engaged in a pointless exercise.
Were Across the Universe on Broadway, it would be called a "jukebox musical" — a strung-together story existing as an excuse to bring to life oldies like "Jersey Boys" or "Leader of the Pack." Taymor would have been a good stage director for it. Her greatest artistic achievement to date has been on Broadway as the director of The Lion King, with its delightful use of shadow puppets and costumed figures on stilts.
But Cirque du Soleil got there first with Love, which uses Beatles songs and is in Vegas. Also, unlike "Jersey Boys" — which offers audiences a chance to hear a pseudo-Four Seasons in their prime — nobody needs Broadway to see Beatles impersonators. There's one in every town.
So that left the big screen, where Taymor previously has made the imaginative Titus and the flat Frida, as the best available "jukebox" for a Beatles musical.
Immediately this is problematic because it's been done before — Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring sometime-Cincinnatian Peter Frampton, was one of the debacles of 1970s cinema.
Across the Universe strings together 33 Beatles songs in rapid-fire sequence. It is most interesting when Taymor, with cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and choreographer Daniel Ezralow, get as trippy as the 1960s allows with some conceptual, music-video-like numbers that function independently of the plot.
"Because" becomes a sweet and lovely nude underwater ballet. "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" features sheepish Army draftees in their underwear dancing with masked, razor-jawed drill sergeants as an Uncle Sam poster comes to life to grab a scared kid, like something out of a Krazy Kat cartoon. Later, in a literal interpretation of the song's "She's So Heavy" passage, the half-naked boys — like the Pharaoh's slaves — carry the Statue of Liberty through a Vietnam war zone.
"I've Just Seen a Face" playfully messes around with frame speed as kids bowl a few frames at a local alley. And while it's pure kitsch, "I Am the Walrus" is also gleeful spectacle as a mustachioed Bono — a Ken Kesey/Timothy Leary surrogate — leads freaked-out kids on a magical-mystery-tour bus ride while the colors change radically as if a psychedelic God is digitally adjusting the sky. Cool!
But the film more often is stuck trying to use Beatles songs to didactically illustrate a painfully obvious story. Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (Still Crazy), it crams every possible Beatles and 1960s reference — Detroit riots, Columbia University sit-ins, Weatherman bombings — into its tale.
Jude (Jim Sturgess), who begins the film singing the first line of "Girl" on a lonely beach ("Is there anybody going to listen to my story"), leaves Liverpool to search for his American father. He finds himself at Princeton where he befriends Max (Joe Anderson), a rebellious student who wants to drop out. They bond while doing obnoxious pranks during an annoyingly cutesy "With a Little Help From My Friends" skit. Max brings him home, where Jude meets blonde, shy younger sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).
They all wind up living in New York with the older, wiser Janis Joplin-like Sadie (a terrific Dana Fuchs, who was in the stage production of Love, Janis), the Jimi Hendrix-like guitarist JoJo (Martin Luther) and a forlorn young lady, Prudence, who comes in through the bathroom window and is attracted to Sadie (T.V. Carpio, whose version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is not a high point).
Max goes to Vietnam and gets messed up. Jude paints and breaks up with Lucy, who gets into radical politics. They all come together, sort of, at a rooftop concert modeled on the famous sequence in "Let It Be," with the raspy Fuchs belting "Don't Let Me Down."
While Sturgess has a melodic voice for singing and speaking, he has the same kind of crooked, strangely elderly smile as Tobey Maguire. It gives him the appearance of smugness, as if he's above his material. Maybe he is. Anderson has an appealingly nervous, restless spirit a la James Dean or young Dennis Hopper. Wood is a naturally compelling actress, who also reveals herself a fine singer with a lovely version of "If I Fell."
Across the Universe isn't about the Beatles, which might be its worst problem. It's hard to divorce these songs from the singers/songwriters who made them (and who sang many of them in their own movies and videos). And when the songs function as rickety props to a corny story with clichéd characters, this film embarrasses its source material. As a "jukebox," it needs more hits. Grade: C