Call me overly reverent if you must. But the music of The Beatles means a great deal to several generations of listeners, and I am sad and angry to see it so thoroughly mangled in Across the Universe.
The movie’s bald literalness and its wounded-heart-on-its-sleeve demeanor are enough to make a Beatles fan retch. All of the characters are named after Beatles songs as a shorthand to bring in the music. For example, one girl is named Prudence, just so that her friends can coax her out of her room by singing, “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?”
The movie’s imagery makes countless allusions to Beatles films, videos, and icons (the Apple logo, John and Yoko in the buff, etc.). There’s even an eye-rolling moment where a character asks how a stranger got in the room, and the reply comes: “She came in through the bathroom window.”
I guess this is all meant to pat the loyal Beatles fan on the back for catching the references. But it only made me think of The Bee Gees’ 1978 movie massacre of the famed Beatles album Sgt. Pepper. It’s a movie that director Julie Taymor would have done well to study, because Universe falls into the earlier movie’s booby-traps (and with many of the same songs, yet).
I’ve not yet mentioned the movie’s characters, who barely exist anyway. There’s Jude (Jim Sturgess), a Liverpool dock worker who travels to New York and gets caught up in the ’60s revolution. The girl he falls for, though she doesn’t live in the sky with diamonds, is named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood, the snotty teenager from Thirteen). There’s Lucy’s wisecracking brother Max (Joe Anderson), whose smugness drains away once he gets his draft notice for the Vietnam War.
There are many more characters, but none of them makes any impact beyond the three minutes it takes them to sing a Beatles tune. Take Prudence as an example. We first see her as a loner cheerleader, longing for a football star from afar and singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The next we see of her, she’s hitchhiking to New York. Why? Just because she couldn’t get the football player? And Prudence’s adventures in New York and beyond are just as enigmatic. Every character in the movie plays this way.
It doesn’t help that the actors warbling classic tunes could barely pass an “American Idol” audition. Only three big-name celebs appear in the movie, with varied degrees of success. Actor Eddie Izzard talk-sings “Mr. Kite” like a stoner Rex Harrison. And Bono goes way over the top as a carbon copy of famed druggie Ken Kesey. Only blues singer Joe Cocker acquits himself admirably, with a funky version of “Come Together.”
The acid test for musicals is: If you took away the music, would you still care about the characters? If you took the music out of Across the Universe, the characters would evaporate.