Directed by Julie Taymor
“Music’s the only thing that makes sense anymore, man. Play it loud enough, it keeps the demons at bay.”
Another two-disc edition, with a striking, visual cover – a bright red strawberry on a starry background with the lovers in the centre.
The bonus material includes a stack of featurettes, some rehearsal footage, a commentary, photo gallery, trailers and live performances by the cast.
All things considered, a decent haul, but I guarantee I’ve never sat through it all.
Why Did I Get This?
Put simply, I went through a big Beatles phase in my late twenties and this jukebox musical came out at just the right time. It wasn’t a big enough phase to go see it at the cinema, mind.
I’ve also been a big fan of Eddie Izzard for years, and reading she was appearing in a Beatles-themed musical pretty much sold me on it.
I do remember watching it in don’t recall a great deal about it except Izzard, Bono, a silver hammer and a lovely final shot, so let’s see how it holds up…
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will be a scene-by-scene account of the film, so if you don’t want to read any spoilers, go ahead and skip to the next heading!
Even though I’ve seen this before, I had no recollection of it being written by Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais (with Julie Taymor) – they’re two of the biggest names in British television comedy in the Twentieth Century (they wrote Porridge, The Likely Lads and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, among many others), but I don’t remember this being funny. Let’s see.
We open on Jim Sturgess singing Girl while sitting cross-legged on a bleak, windy beach looking like James Blunt in one of his videos and sounding exactly like Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge, then he turns and smoulders right down the lens… careful, folks, it’s getting hot in here!
We’re treated to a brief montage of crashing waves, race riots, anti-war demonstrations and police brutality set to a throaty version of Helter Skelter (more of that later), before a vision of Evan Rachel Wood’s Lucy appears to calm it all down.
Now we’re quickly cutting between what appears to be The Enchantment Under The Sea Dance from Back To The Future and The Cavern in Liverpool to show what courting was like on both sides of the Atlantic in the mid-sixties, before cutting to Sturgess at work on Liverpool Docks.
Stepping out of the film for a second, these scenes must have cost a fortune, with huge shipbuilding activity and a big old location that looks like the site of Hugh Jackman’s introduction in Les Miserables.
Collecting his pay, Sturgess tells the paymaster he’s leaving for America, to which the older man replies “I told myself when I’m 64 I’ll be long gone from this place”.
Crowbarred that one in there, lads.
So Sturgess is leaving behind his girlfriend to work his passage on a ship to the US (stop sniggering), but before he goes he steals a picture of him mum with an American soldier and has time to feel up his girlfriend in an alleyway while singing All My Loving – the lyrics promise to “write home every day”, and this feels much better than some random line being forced into the dialogue.
Meanwhile, in the US, Evan Rachel Wood’s dressed up like Olivia Newton John in Grease (Good Sandy, not Naughty Sandy), and saying goodbye to her boyfriend who is leaving to join the Army.
Turns out she’s a cheerleader too, and in the next scene, while she’s dancing around in slow motion, we’re introduced to another new character – Prudence – watching from the bleachers and wistfully singing I Wanna Hold Your Hand. This unrequited love is really sweet (and I seem to remember it’s something of a character trait for poor prudence). The arrangement of the song is beautiful and mixes so well with the visuals of Prudence walking slowly through American Footballers crashing into each other. Really lovely.
Next thing, we’re watching a handsome preppy fella – Max – rushing through a college campus, dropping his books and bumping into Sturgess, who asks for a professor – turns out the guy he’s looking for is the janitor, and the GI in his mum’s photo.
During a heart to heart in the janitor’s quarters, he asks how his absence was explained and Jude says, brutally: “You could excuse a bastard by saying his dad was killed in the war.” Yeesh.
Still, Jude makes it clear he’s not out to wreck the guy’s family, he’s only there so both men know the other exists.
Now Max and his buddies are getting into drunken shenanigans, breaking windows by golfing off a rooftop (as you do), then running like madmen through the campus. Max bumps into Jude again, and they hide out, share a drink, then have a well-choreographed night on the town singing With A Little Help From My Friends before returning to their homeroom and crashing out – it’s sort of like a pissed-up Hogwarts with Beatles tunes at this point.
Meanwhile, Lucy is counting the days until her beau returns on leave and singing It Won’t Be Long during a girly sleepover, and it looks and we discover Lucy and Max are siblings. They welcome Jude to their family home for Thanksgiving, where the dinner table discussion becomes heated around how what you do defines who you are or how who you are defines what you do.
That ends in a row, before Jude brings up the stereotype about British people having bad teeth in a flirty conversation with Lucy, then they all go bowling and he sings I’ve Just Seen A Face while walking through the bowlers, across the lanes, then sliding down them.
No respect for the lane rules, these kids.
Still, as with Prudence walking in slo-mo through the football players earlier, it’s a really striking image (pun intended), before Max and Jude jump in the car and drive to live the Bohemian life in New York at an apartment owned by sexy Sadie (she of the throaty Helter Skelter cover at the beginning) – Dana Fuchs essentially playing a Janis Joplin figure.
At the same time, Lucy’s discovering her boyfriend has been killed in action, and we’re treated to an absolutely stunning version of Let It Be, intercut with the Detroit riots and the funerals of her fella and a young boy killed in the unrest.
Seriously, what a song, regardless of the version. Here, the track goes gospel during the Detroit funeral, and it’s spine-tingling – check it out for yourself.
At the funeral, we ‘meet’ JoJo – a guitarist who uses his grief to fuel a move to New York, where his arrival is accompanied by yer actual Joe bloody Cocker growling his way through Come Together while dressed as a hobo, then a pimp, then a hippy, like so…
This ends with a lovely handheld shot of JoJo looking up at the skyscrapers while an army of Mad Men caricatures perform a flash mob.
Okay, now JoJo’s living at Sadie’s too, and Prudence has climbed in from the rain through the fire escape, sporting a black eye and when asked who she is, Jude announces: “She came in through the bathroom window.”
Score another one for the subtle song references lads, great work.
Time must have passed now, because everyone’s hair is longer while Sadie’s banging out Why Don’t We Do It In The Road? to a packed bar – she really reminds me of Tia Carrere in Wayne’s World here, sexy as all hell and singing her throat raw.
The night ends on a bit of a bummer, as Max announces he’s been conscripted to fight in Vietnam, but a short time later, Jude and Lucy are bonding by a wrecked pier which is probably symbolic but in all honesty, I’m just keen to get to the next song.
He picks up a burnt stick and draws a great likeness of her on a nearby wall, before they run through an abandoned factory and I expect to see Kevin Bacon doing his angry Footloose dance in the background.
Still, the old ‘charcoal portrait and race through a factory’ ruse seems to do the trick, as the next thing we know, Lucy’s singing If I Fell at a party, then she and Jude are getting together. The next morning, Max discovers them in bed (he’s not mad, but says she can do better), and announces he’s got a date with Uncle Sam.
He arrives for his medical eating cotton wool to create a shadow on an x-ray that never happens, then freaks out as a nightmarish human conveyor of ghastly GIs perform I Want You (She’s So Heavy), while manhandling him and a bunch of other new recruits. Honestly, the visuals for this sequence are very Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and features men in white Y-Fronts carrying the Statue of Liberty through Vietnamese jungle as explosions go off around them.
Still, it ends with a great exchange with the recruitment officer (played by the guy who went on to become Martian Manhunter in the DC movies)…
Army Sergeant: Is there any reason you shouldn’t serve in this man’s Army?
Max: I’m a cross-dressing homosexual pacifist with a spot on my lung.
Army Sergeant: As long as you don’t have flat feet…
Meanwhile, back at Sadie’s flat, Prudence is back out on the fire escape looking longingly at Sadie as she dresses JoJo in bright silk shirts like Jimi Hendrix, and singing I Want You to herself – she just can’t catch a break, poor girl.
In fact, she’s so upset, she’s now locked herself in a wardrobe and the rest of the gang have to sing Dear Prudence to coax her out. I seem to remember the reason the song was written was actually to encourage a little girl out of a sulk, so this is nice, really.
Sturgess still really sounds like Ewan McGregor – seriously, I wonder if they had the same voice coach?
Here we are, Max is twatting a broken fan with a silver hammer – that’s one of the least subtle gags I remember from the first time round!
Now Sadie’s been offered a record deal, but solo, and she’s reluctant. However, she and the gang go to a party held by the label where they come across Doctor Robert – Bono here, acting a bit like 1970s Dennis Hopper, wearing a great ‘tache and sideburns and going into quite an aggressive version of I Am The Walrus while everyone takes acid.
Before they know it, they’re on a bus on their way to Doctor Geary’s place where Bono promises them they’ll be enlightened – Timothy Leary was an advocate of LSD around this time, so I’m not sure why they’ve monkeyed around with his name here – maybe they thought his estate wouldn’t want him to be associated with Bono.
Speak of the devil, he now reels off a monologue which, even for Bono, is a bit much…
Dr. Robert: We’re navigators, we’re aviators, eatin’ taters, masturbatin’ alligators, bombardiers, we got no fears, won’t shed no tears, we’re pushin’ the frontiers of transcendental perception.
Bono – sounding like Robin Williams doing an impersonation of Jack Palance – promptly buggers off, and the gang find themselves drawn by circus music to…
… Mr Kite! Well, Eddie Izzard performing Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite.
This whole sequence feels very Terry Gilliam (all big hands and faces, choppy animation, surreal, etc), while Eddie Izzard sounds like someone doing an impression of Eddie Izzard in the late 90s. Prudence is here too, and apparently she’s living happily with a contortionist called Rita, so that’s nice for her.
We’re also treated to a little interlude of the gang having a last evening of peace, which includes Jude and Lucy in a nude embrace like the famous Lennon/Ono photo, before Max is on the ground in Vietnam and shit’s getting real.
Now we’re back in New York and it’s winter and Jude’s drawing Lucy like one of his French girls – she’s asleep and nude, but on waking, tells him he didn’t get her left nipple right.
Turns out, she’s now joined a protest group, Jude’s a struggling artist, JoJo is sabotaging Sadie’s big gig after discovering she’s going solo (but he’s playing a wicked, tricked-out Gibson Flying V, which looks cool as hell).
Jude’s struggling to draw an apple (again, subtle), and becomes jealous of Lucy’s colleague as he turns up and gives them a television set (nice problem to have), so he nails some strawberries to a wall – their red juice runs down the screen as the Vietnam death toll plays out on the new TV set, and Jude sings Strawberry Fields Forever while Max watches his buddies getting killed.
Things come to a head for the couple with a row in a laundrette, before Jude turns up at Lucy’s office, punches her boss and gets thrown out while singing Revolution. While walking home, he discovers Martin Luther King Jr has been murdered, so he heads to a bar where JoJo is playing While My Guitar Gently Weeps, singing along to “with every mistake we must surely be learning”, and getting drunk.
Lucy’s left him, unsurprisingly, so he jumps on a train and heads for the campus protest she’s at, singing Across The Universe, before taking a beating at the protest and getting himself arrested. Max is having a shit time of it in ‘Nam too, as a bunch of weird, nude blue women stand and dance on some water, then fall in.
Nope, no idea.
Jude’s languishing in the slammer, when his dad the janitor turns up to bail him out, but says he’s going to be deported back to the UK. On arrival in Liverpool, he’s straight back into his job at the shipyard singing the opening verses to Happiness Is A Warm Gun while walking through a dock I’m absolutely certain I’ve visited for work in the last few months!
Max is now in hospital singing along too, and his fellow patients are scaring a priest while the nurses perform like adult entertainers or dancers in a 1970s Bond film title sequence. He’s got PTSD, meanwhile Lucy’s peaceful protest group has become decidedly un-peaceful, and she discovers her boss and colleagues building bombs.
Jude should’ve punched him harder.
Speaking of Jude, he reads a nice vintage copy of the Liverpool Echo (good paper), and sees the protest group have blown themselves to smithereens. He heads back to his beach to be sad, while Lucy and Max head back to the dock where her charcoal drawing remains.
She sings a lovely version of Blackbird, then everyone’s in a pub but nobody’s having fun (been there too), so when Max sings Hey Jude, it’s just the excuse he needs to ditch the UK and head back to the states to follow his true love.
At this point, it doesn’t matter how much the wigs change, or the amount of life experience the characters are supposed to have had, what’s quite telling is that their voices all sound really strong and youthful. I don’t know if that’s what they were going for, or just something that couldn’t be avoided but they’re all very good regardless.
So Jude is welcomed at Ellis Island and picked up by Max, who’s driving a taxi now. Sadie’s on the radio singing Don’t Let Me Down, and it turns out she’s performing live on a rooftop with JoJo on guitar and Prudence on a teeny piano. This is all lovely, by the way – the homage is obvious, but it works really well.
The cops arrive on the rooftop and shut down the performance, but Jude hides and, alone on the roof, starts singing All You Need Is Love into the mic.
Miraculously, Lucy hears him from the street as she’s walking away (the cops wouldn’t let her up the building to the performance), and starts running – it’s not clear where.
Sadie and Prudence soothe the cops as everyone gently picks up their instruments to accompany Jude and Lucy races to the rooftop of a building opposite, as the song builds, until he sees her.
All You Need Is Love is in full swing, and just as Jude sees Lucy, he has a little intake of breath and almost a sob, while Max (off camera), sings “She Loves You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”, and it sends shivers down my spine every damn time.
Again, this is better seen than described, so here you go…
And that’s it. It might not be the perfect film, but that’s a perfect way to end it.
Thoughts On The Film
Just like The Beatles oversaw massive cultural change throughout the sixties and seventies, Across The Universe attempts to cover the same amount of ground.
Crafted to echo the Fab Four’s musical phases, it’s mostly successful too, but by squeezing in so much it occasionally feels like it runs a little long – technically, it doesn’t, as it comes in at a shade over two hours, but it’s definitely a film you could watch in segments.
On occasion, it’s a little too on the nose – Max swinging a silver hammer for no reason, and Jude announcing on Prudence’s arrival “she came in through the bathroom window”, for example, but it’s good-hearted. How much of that is due to Clement and LaFrenais, I don’t know, but their comedy always had heart – this isn’t particularly funny, but it certainly has that.
Visually, it’s stunning too. The colours are incredible, even in the dullest areas. Some of the imagery is beautiful, and it really feels like it’s trying to live up to its source rather than just cobbling together a bunch of songs with the thinnest of connecting tissue (looking at you, Mama Mia).
Excellent in places, absolutely fine in others, and very rarely boring. Not just suitable for Beatles nuts, it’s a perfectly good jukebox movie even for casual fans.
Still, bit of a shame Octopus’s Garden didn’t get a look in.