Bright Lights Film Journal

Across the Universe: Julie Taymor Made the Most Spectacular Film of the Year

Too bad nobody noticed

Gorgeous widescreen cinematography vast enough to encapsulate an era, the sacred pop of the fab four, and a surprising amount of restraint (musicals suffer when lazily milked for irony) made Across the Universe one of the most expansive and unabashedly spectacular yet overlooked and divisive films of the year. Taken out of context, someone coaxing a girl named Prudence (who came in through the bathroom window, no less) out of hiding to the tune of “Dear Prudence” could be seen as arrogant and cloying, and a clangy kitchen-sink of symbolism could bring to mind the excesses of Tommy. But in a hyper-reality that takes itself deadly serious in order to stay hyper-engaging, the viewer learns to trust and understand that Julie Taymor has done the impossible: crafted a jaw-hanger of a clever musical that teeters on the electric precipice but never collapses into self-consciousness.

Taymor’s motivated use of song to develop not just the plot but the savage swingin’ sixties is masterful.1 A slowed down “If I Fell” sung live and bare-bones by Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) features an inspired pairing of slow motion and cello.2  Shortly thereafter, the girls at her boarding school help her with an amped-up bare feet-wiggling “It Won’t Be Long” as she awaits the subject of the preceding song, boyfriend Daniel (Spencer Liff). Taymor extracts every meaning, perspective, and possibility from well-chosen songs to express and expand on every mood, creating an amalgam far mightier than the sum of its parts.

Sir Paul and Yoko were both delighted with what Julie Taymor did with the music.3 Taymor at once imparts how the Beatles captured and were changed by the era, a magnificent tug-of-war that adds tension, helping to imbue Across the Universe with additional richness, depth, meaning, and dazzling verve. In narrative film, friendship can be illustrated by a handshake, a knowing wink, or a full-on “A Little Help from My Friends.” The tune propels the transformative growth of rollicking college buddies throughout a single performance; beginning with the Beatles’ version and, when the bonding becomes too intense, when things get too hyper to handle, blistering out to Joe Cocker’s primal rendering. The film constantly plays to genre strength, underscoring the magnificent power of a musical and boiling down a full film’s worth of development to one sequence. The viewer has little time to breathe before the coasting magnificence of “I’ve Just Seen a Face” fills the most spectacular bowling alley this side of The Big Lebowski. This is economical filmmaking in a study of contrasts, where the preceding bucolic locales stand in stark relief to a following scene of race-rioting inner-city strife as “Let it Be” emanates from a small boy cringing behind a car . . . and then explodes into a gospel chorus filling out his funeral.

Julie Taymor is renowned for imaginative set-pieces and costumes.4 And she doesn’t skimp on what the wild, racy, colorful, gigantic sixties could offer to a film like Across the Universe. “Because” becomes a free-love/drug anthem in a suitably-matched floating-hippies sequence. Eddie Izzard’s Mr. Kite exploding out of enormous heads to a wild collage of the internal druggie world contrasts with the most intense use of paranoid imagery outside of The Wall as the military indoctrinates Daniel to the tune of “I Want You.” Uncle Sam becomes huge, pulls him in. And as each of the draftees is attached to an assembly-line belt and shot into different cubicles, boxes fill the screen to show how interchangeable and sliced up these kids were. As the boxes open, close, and shift, individuality is systematically extracted in the grandest statement on not only the war’s literal slaughter but also how the absolute need for brainwashing is perhaps its greatest weapon. Later, strawberries bomb Vietnam to bring the anti-war statement into stunning focus in “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

The film’s titular scene brings the Beatles’ Buddhist meanderings down to Earth. As Jude (Jim Sturgess) rolls along on the subway train, “Across the Universe” becomes his anthem of loneliness. The tune’s Tibetan chant chorus, “jai guru deva om,” can be heard from robed figures in the next car over. Taymor then shifts into a close-up that reflects as many subway riders and stars as possible, visually cementing this unity of loneliness. This darkness becomes cataclysmic as the tower of flowers falls to Manson, Altamont, and the endless Vietnam conflict, and the dreamy “Across the Universe” visually and sonically segues into the nightmarish “Helter Skelter.” Protests and Vietnam battles are crosscut with perhaps the film’s most haunting image, a water ballet of Vietnamese women eventually dying to the song’s final words “Nothing’s gonna change my world.” In this way, Taymor illustrates that we are all on the train together, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest a Buddhist unity and togetherness. The only constant is that this will continue to go on, fully buttressing the anti-war statement to include Iraq and whatever follows, for there will be a next time; nothing’s gonna change this world.

There are few misfires in Across the Universe; casting pop “icon” Bono as Dr. Robert doing “I am the Walrus” in a winkingly self-conscious performance is small potatoes in an otherwise substantial 131 minutes. This brilliant love-letter to an era is imbued with inspired musical choices and reimaginings, brilliant set-pieces and costumes, thrilling choreography, fine acting and singing, and superb storytelling. The use of “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” are obvious but rethought as charming homage to the poets who made these insightful statements. When the viewer is finished with this breathtaking ride, only one question remains: How can this be? How could the equally overexposed sixties and Beatles come across as fresh? Julie Taymor has woven such a resonant and magnificent work in Across the Universe that what would in other hands likely have become hackneyed is reinvented, renewed, and enlivened to illuminate the issues of what Taymor has successfully revealed as the Beatles era.5

  1. The plot is simple in order to direct focus onto not just the era but also the showcase performances, set-pieces, choreography, and razzle dazzle that is Across the Universe. Plot = boy meets girl story + moves to city, experiences the sixties, so the viewer can feel what it was really like in the grandest terms possible. []
  2. According to the DVD’s extras, 75 percent of the singing in all 33 songs was live. []
  3. See here. []
  4. For which Albert Wolksy lost to Elizabeth: the Golden Age, proof positive that a film doesn’t have to be good to win for one component — a triumph, in this case, of technique over imagination. []
  5. A wonderful documentary, The US vs. John Lennon, states literally what Across the Universe delivers metaphorically — Lennon was truly feared by the U.S. administration, and Nixon tried to deport him for his ability to subvert war efforts by leading a peace movement. []