As a delivery system for injecting a new generation with Beatles music, Across the Universe is efficient as well as playful and ferocious — much like the Fab Four themselves. The movie is almost an opera: plot primarily conveyed through song. And while Universe’s thin 1960s-era romance never achieves the emotional complexity of even so ”simple” a song as ”All My Loving,” the film sure knows how to present that melody with an energy and visual invention that make you adore the tune all the more.
We TV fans already knew that Universe’s female lead, Evan Rachel Wood, had a beautiful voice from the few times she sang on the ABC series Once and Again. The rest of the lesser-known cast, meanwhile — particularly Wood’s romantic interest, played by Jim Sturgess — have expressive instruments that only occasionally succumb to the Broadway-style belting that characterizes so many movie musicals. Julie Taymor, the gifted theater director trained in the avant-garde yet best known for her crowd-pleasing stage hit The Lion King, combines her skills here. Universe’s story is simple: Wealthy American girl Lucy (Wood) meets poor British lad Jude (Sturgess) and they fall in love. Lucy’s wayward brother, Max (Joe Anderson), is drafted and sent to Vietnam. They have communal friends in a Janis Joplinesque singer, Sadie (Dana Fuchs); a shy girl named Prudence (T.V. Carpio); and a Hendrix-style guitarist, Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy). If those Beatles-themed names make you wince well, — so did I.
But I was won over by the sheer blithe audacity and sense of fun that Taymor and her collaborators, including screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, radiate throughout Universe. Whether it’s Wood warbling a chipper version of ”It Won’t Be Long” while mooning over a love letter or Max reporting for his draft-board hearing under the gaze of an Uncle Sam poster that comes to life singing ”I Want You,” Taymor fills the screen with psychedelic colors, oversize puppets, and naturalistic choreography that heighten reality the way the ’60s counterculture intensified life for young people at the time.
The two-disc deluxe set includes five making-of featurettes that reveal some of the nuts and bolts behind the screen magic, but the best extra is the commentary by Taymor and the film’s music producer, Elliot Goldenthal. Taymor possesses a soothing voice; she proves a dreamy yet crisply articulate guide through the proceedings, pointing out little biz bits like the fact that to retain a PG-13 rating, her young dope smokers had to mime passing around a nonexistent joint. Hey, sometimes you say you want a revolution, but sometimes you just have to settle for something in the way they move. B+