I am a huge Beatles fan, to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the film I am going to relate.
My fascination with the four lads from Liverpool can be traced directly to my friend Paul Trandahl, who began my indoctrination as a Beatlemaniac in 1981. Paul made sure I understood such important things as being sure to get the albums in their original British versions on high-quality vinyl with the actual Apple label, for example. Throughout college, Paul and I read every book on The Beatles as it came out (I specifically remember Shout! and All You Needed Was Love), listened to and discussed every song and every album, and watched every film.
During my senior year at college (go Northwestern Wildcats!), I was in an advanced screenwriting class. We had to do all sorts of writing exercises during the course, including overnight TV scripts, commercial spots, and even radio plays. One exercise we had was to create a screenplay based on some sort of marketing tie-in. And wouldn’t you know it, the assignment was to create a movie based on… Beatles songs! Miine was a very silly comedy called “And Your Bird Can Sing”, which featured a singing parrot that knew all the secrets of anyone who came into contact with it. As bad as it was, I felt that mine was one of the better efforts in the class. The professor, as I recall, was pretty disgusted with the lot of us, and said he hoped none of us ever sold one of those horrible scripts.
That was in 1984. And as far as I know, in the following 23 years, no movie based on any Beatles song ever came out. I guess the creative karmic stench from our class had wafted out into the ether. But then, last year, Across the Universe appeared. I didn’t pay much attention to it, other than noting it had received some decent reviews. However, one night a few months ago I was on the phone with Paul. During the course of one of our normal “whatcha doing” conversations (Paul lives in Los Angeles, I live in Fort Lauderdale), he said “So… have you seen Across the Universe yet?” When I told him I hadn’t, he said I had to see it. “It’s the Beatles movie we always talked about, and now somebody finally made it”.
I said I would definitely go out and see it, but somehow I never got around to seeing it in the theater. And then a few weeks ago it came out on Blu-Ray (as well as regular DVD, for that matter), so I was finally able to see it.
Paul Trandahl was right. This is the Beatles movie we’d always wanted.
Across the Universe is a musical – a full-on, lip-synced, dancing and everything musical, but all of the music is Beatles songs. The songs are all sung by the actors in the movie and in character and as part of the story, which is quite an achievement. But it doesn’t end there. Every character name, tons of background elements, events, passing characters and more are all taken from Beatles lyrics. This movie was made for anal Beatles fans – I’ve watched it twice now, and I don’t think I have caught every reference yet by a long shot.
The story takes place during the 1960’s. Although no dates are ever shown on screen, I’d say it goes from about 1964 to 1969 (in other words, the time the Beatles were on the world scene). The story follows two people on two different continents, and how their lives and loves intertwine during that tumultuous decade.
Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a young dockworker in Liverpool, England. He leaves his mother Martha and his teenage girlfriend – whom he promises to “write home every day, as I send all my loving to you” – to work as a deck hand on a freighter. He jumps ship in New York, however, and it is soon revealed that he is really trying to find his estranged father, a Yank that had an affair with his mother during World War II.
Meanwhile, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a high school girl, sees her boyfriend off as he enlists to go and fight in Viet Nam. As he fights in the war, she reads his letters with joy, and sings how “it won’t be long, till he comes home, to me!”
Maxwell (Joe Anderson), Lucy’s older brother, is a student at Columbia University – where, coincidentally, Jude’s estranged father works as a janitor. And so, the night Jude comes to find his father, he runs into Maxwell (who gets by with a little help from his friends), and the wheels of destiny spin.
At the point where Jude and Lucy meet, and then go on a bowling outing together (“I’ve Just Seen a Face”), the movie kicks into high gear, and I will stop the plot summary and simply say that Jude, Maxwell, and Lucy live together through every major event of the sixties, and sing nearly 30 Beatles songs during the course of the film.
The absolute highlight is the middle of the film, beginning with “Dear Prudence” being encouraged to come out to play. The group (including, by now, Sexy Sadie and JoJo her guitar player) then stop by a pyschedelic book store to hear hippie guru Dr. Robert (Bono) hawking his new book, “I Am The Walrus”. Bono sings the John Lennon classic with great style as the group all pile onto a pyschedilic painted bus and zoom off cross-country to try and meet with Timothy Leary. And although they never see the good Dr. Leary, they do get to see the bizarre circus tent performance “For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”. Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard) takes them on the film’ absolute show stopper – a flat out animated acid trip rendition of this song from my absolute favorite Beatles album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.
I’ve watched the “Mr. Kite” segment over and over, and it gets better every time. It manages to be creepy and scary in addition to being fun – exactly what an acid trip is actually like. Or so I have been told. Not that I would have any actual experience in such things, of course. Ahem.
Other sections worth special note are “Come Together”, where Joe Cocker performs as three separate characters, all singing this great song from “Abbey Road”. And “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, sung as a recruiting anthem for the Army. And “Revolution” as a breakup song.
Across the Universe is, of course, a love story, and I guarantee that you do get to hear “Hey Jude” before the end… and it fits in perfectly, both in the plot and thematically. Maxwell does indeed wield a silver hammer at one point (although the song is never sung), someone comes in through a bathroom window, and in the end, all you need is love.
This movie also looks and sounds great. The acting is decent. Perhaps more importantly, everyone (except Eddie Izzard, who “talk sings”) can sing well. The two leads are pitch-perfect, important since between the two of them they sing over half of the songs in the movie. The special effects and animations that pull off so many of the numbers are perfectly integrated. The costumes and settings feel exactly like the sixties. It’s also clear that everyone involved in the creation of this film, especially the writers and the director. are huge Beatles fans. Even the fictional record company in the movie, “Strawberry Jams”, is an homage to the actual label for the Beatles, Apple Records.
And now that the High Definition Disc War is over, let me take this opportunity to preach the wonders of Blu-Ray discs. This film in particular looks stunningly beautiful in full 1080p high definition.
If you like the Beatles (and especially if you love the Beatles), you’ll love Across the Universe. And even if you don’t care for the Beatles one way or the other, but you like musicals, you’ll enjoy this movie quite a bit. However, if the sixties and/or hippies scare you, stay away.