“Across the Universe” Transcends Time and Place
How Julie Taymor’s Beatles musical speaks to, and beyond, a generation.
Before making her mark as a visionary filmmaker, Julie Taymor was a creative force in the world of theater. Launching her career with Broadway’s hit musical, The Lion King, it was only a matter of time before the artist brought her singular brand of spectacle to the big screen. In 1999, her first feature, Titus, introduced audiences to her taste for exploring dark themes with vivid imagery. Following that, she teamed up with the stunning Salma Hayek in 2002 for Frida, a biopic in which the director’s innovative style had Frida Kahlo’s artwork walking straight off the canvas into the real world. Beyond conceptualizing these breathtaking visuals, Taymor has also been known throughout her career to lend a hand with costume design, songwriting, and puppetry. In 2007, these elements came together when she had the opportunity to helm another musical — only this time her stage would have far fewer limitations than Broadway.
Across the Universe was filmed at seventy locations, from the dockyards of Liverpool to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The vibrant musical includes thousands of costumes, hundreds of dancers, and a vast array of puppets, masks, and phenomenal set pieces that come alive through mixing practical and digital effects with animation. Every magnificent detail tells the story of young love set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the Detroit riots, and the anti-war movement of the 1960s — an era synonymous with the music of the Beatles, who provided the soundtrack for a generation coming-of-age during tumultuous times. More than four decades later, Julie Taymor used that timeless soundtrack to invent a new coming-of-age story and jukebox musical. Working closely with co-writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, they weaved the words from thirty-three Lennon and McCartney songs into every fiber of the film’s narrative, from simple components, like the character’s names, to more complex storylines symbolizing the effects of wartime on the world. Using songs from every era of the band, Taymor’s resplendent and universal tale about love amidst chaos often draws striking parallels between reality and fiction.
When filtered through Taymor’s imaginative lens, a seemingly simple plot becomes anything but. The film follows Liverpool dockworker Jude (Jim Sturgess) as he escapes to the U.S., teaming up with rebellious college student Max (Joe Anderson) and his sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), an all-American girl who has tragically lost her first love to the war. The trio eventually lands in New York City, where Jude and Lucy fall in love and Max confronts the draft after quitting the university. Intercutting scenes from the Detroit riots, the jungles of Vietnam, and the Columbia University protests of 1968, the narrative breathes new life, and sometimes new meaning, into familiar hits by the Beatles.
When high school student Prudence (T.V. Carpio) sings “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” for instance, the upbeat tune becomes an aching ode to unrequited love while she struggles to hide her true identity and burgeoning feelings for a fellow cheerleader. Another memorable sequence featuring “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” recalls the canvases brought to life in Frida when Uncle Sam bursts from a poster on the wall to claim his new flock of soldiers. Depicting Max’s whirlwind date with destiny, he and his army of brothers are stripped down to their underwear and forced to carry the weight of the Statue of Liberty on their shoulders. The final line of the song (“yeah, she’s so heavy”) combined with this dramatic imagery resonates with symbolism of the many young people past and present faced with the responsibility of fighting for their country.
But the images in Across the Universe aren’t all dark and brooding. Fans of the Beatles’ extensive list of love songs will get their swoon on when Jude declares his love in “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “Something.” Likewise, Lucy’s touching lament of opening one’s heart again after heartbreak in “If I Fell” is sure to bring a tear to your eye. Not to worry, though, supporting characters Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and Jo-Jo (Martin Luther) add a little bit of soul, channeling Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in their rocking renditions of “Oh! Darling” and “Don’t Let Me Down.” Taymor leads the audience as well as her entire cast — including cameo appearances by Bono, Eddie Izzard, and Joe Cocker — on a magical mystery tour in this kaleidoscopic musical. The cinematic marriage between the Beatles and the director’s inventive style make this perhaps the first musical where it’s plausible that random strangers on the street would be familiar enough with the tunes to randomly break into song.
From their earlier, more innocent songs to their experimental days with psychedelia and anti-war ballads, the Beatles defined a generation, and every stage of their career is represented on-screen. Taymor’s innovative use of their diverse songbook invents an original narrative to explore the universal themes of coming-of-age, falling in love, and embracing the power of the individual to inspire change in the world. But this music has also transcended generations: For example, “All You Need Is Love” became an anthem of hope for a country at war in the 1960’s, but today the sentiment still resonates. Whether now or then, young or old, across the universe, we’re still clinging to our belief in the power of love.
Watch Now: Across the Universe will be available for streaming on Fandor until September 30, 2018.