Saturday, 20 October 2007

"Across the Universe" Film review

Danielle Ni Dhighe ( ) reviews the new Beatles musical...

"Across the Universe" - The story of the 1960s told as a musical based on the songs of the Beatles. It's a concept that could only result in a film that's either totally brilliant or totally pretentious. In the hands of visionary screen and stage director Julie Taymor ("Titus", "Frida", Broadway's "The Lion King"), it's the former, and it immediately ranks as one of the great films of 2007.

Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a young dock worker from Liverpool who travels to the United States in the mid-1960s to find the American G.I. father (Robert Clohessy) he never knew. He befriends the privileged Max (Joe Anderson) and his sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Jude and Lucy fall in love, and their relationship develops against the turbulent backdrop of the Vietnam War, student protests, and societal upheaval.

Although Taymor's background is in stage productions, all of her films are intensely visual in a way that can only be described as mainlining pure cinema directly into the veins of an audience. She's one of the rare filmmakers who knows how to use all the tools of the visual arts to expand the horizons of cinema. "Across the Universe" is no different. Taymor and screenwriters Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais ("The Commitments", "Flushed Away") craft a cleverly complex story told as a series of interconnected vignettes around the songs of the Beatles to explore the 1960s through the eyes of the characters. It never feels anachronistic because its themes are directly relevant to contemporary society. Taymor translates the screenplay into a film that's visually literate, highly metaphorical, and an emotionally powerful artistic statement.

Some controversy arose during post-production after Revolution Studios chairman Joe Roth decided to make his own edit without informing Taymor, cutting out nearly a third of the film. After months of conflict between Taymor and Roth, the studio relented and released
Taymor's 131 minute cut. The film's structure is so intricately woven that it's hard to imagine a radically shortened version working at all. Thankfully, Taymor's vision prevailed.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel ("Amélie"), production designer Mark Friedberg ("The Ice Storm", "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"), and veteran costume designer Albert Wolsky ("Grease", "All That Jazz") bring Taymor's vision to vivid life in a sense stunning fashion,
delicately treading a fine line between realism and artifice. Elliot Goldenthal ("Titus", "Frida") contributes some original music and is also one of the people responsible for the song arrangements. You've never heard the Beatles quite like this.

There are thirty-four Beatles songs used in the film, mostly compositions of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but also three from George Harrison and one credited to all four band members. As if any further proof is really necessary, it once again shows why Lennon and
McCartney were two of the greatest writers of popular music in the 20th century. The musical numbers are brilliantly staged by Taymor and choreographer Daniel Ezralow ("Earth Girls Are Easy"), and they all work perfectly in the context of the story.

Taymor gets great acting and singing performances out of her cast, including the McCartney-esque Sturgess as Jude, Wood as Lucy, Anderson as the Vietnam-bound Max, Dana Fuchs as the Janis Jopin-inspired singer Sadie, Martin Luther McCoy as guitarist/singer JoJo (inspired by Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye), T.V. Carpio as yearning runaway
Prudence, Clohessy as Jude's long lost father, U2 frontman Bono as the charismatic Dr. Robert (his performance of "I Am the Walrus" is outstanding), Eddie Izzard as the circus ringmaster Mr. Kite, Salma Hayek as a nurse, and Joe Cocker in three different roles.

It's not often that a piece of cinema raises itself to the sublime level of a work of art, but "Across the Universe" is one of those rare examples. It's mind-blowing in all the right ways and very highly recommended. It's only the second film this year (the other was "The Wind That Shakes the Barley") that I feel is worthy of a full five stars.

[5 out of 5 stars]

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