DVD Review: Rocking Across the Inspired and Intoxicated Universe*

February 15, 2008

By Andrew William Smith, Editor

Visually intoxicating and emotionally inspired, Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe redefines the rock musical as she retells the story of the 1960s counterculture by reinterpreting classic songs from the Beatles catalog.

Mixing a sappy love story with an incendiary political situation and painting it all with an epic brush across a wildly-costumed, brilliantly-choreographed, and polychromatic palette, ambitious auteur Taymor has achieved the artistically impossible, constructing prophetic nostalgia and seamless narrative in the form of a feature-length music video.

Ignoring her potential detractors, Taymor treads well-traveled byways of familiar cultural motifs with a lyrical levity that ignites our passions without getting lost in the socially complicated implications of her endeavor. The lead characters bear names from Beatles songs like Jude (Jim Sturgess), Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), Max (Joe Anderson), and Sadie (Dana Fuchs). These overlapping lives light fires of historical significance to warm our jaded memories of a time period that defined a culture war that has lasted for decades since. Every scene and song provide memorable highlights, but some in particular stand out for me.

The already enormous “Let It Be” gets recast as an emotionally-loaded gospel revival against the chilling backdrop of the parallel casualties wrought by the Detroit riots and the Vietnam war. Carol Woods’s wondrous performance haunts with its poignant beauty after repeated viewings and listenings.

An imagined super-group collaboration between Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix comes alive in the relationship between Sadie and Jo Jo (Martin Luther). When Lucy leaves her sheltered suburban reality to discover the urban grit of New York City, she gets the full immersion experience a wickedly rocking version of Sadie’s band performing “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road.”

The rudely claustrophobic rendering of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” transforms the military induction rite of passage with riveting images and dystopian riffs—sort of like the Matrix meets MC Escher. Much to Max’s disdain, when Uncle Sam puts out the call for cannon fodder, even someone who claims to be a “crossdressing homosexual pacifist” will do—as long as he doesn’t have flat feet.

Under the wonderfully fantastic tutelage of Taymor’s wide angle wisdom, each song gets treated like a sacred text to be taught to an audience of acolytes aspiring to be members of the psychedelic clergy. In the cosmically delectable trifecta of “I Am the Walrus,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and “Because,” Taymor captures the topsy-turvy and mentally curvy magic of the times.

An unlikely candidate for the day-glo guru giving out shots of electric koolaid, Bono’s brilliant Dr. Robert does creative justice to the merry pranks of Ken Kesey’s kind with the spontaneous poetry of “We’re navigators. We’re aviators. We’re eatin’ taters, masturbating alligators. Bombardiers, we got no fears. We shed no tears. We’re pushing the frontiers of transcendental perception.”

When “Dr. Geary” at the “League of Spiritual Deliverance” refuses to meet with Bono and his band of sisters and brothers, the scene soon switches to the surreal circus tents commandeered by Eddie Izzard’s Mr. Kite. Creating a mood reminiscent of festive scenes like the Bread and Puppet Theater or Burning Man, Taymor takes us down the rabbit hole with a special effects budget and sensibility so savvy that she can recreate the “sixties trip” without any side-effects, legal worries, or mental hangover.

But Taymor doesn’t just employ her keenly kaleidoscopic directorial eye to conjure fantastic communal bliss, she also taps into the terrifying aspects of the times, from jangling with Max through the jungles of ‘nam to watching Jude paint his protest in a stunningly apocalyptic version of “Strawberry Fields” that literally must be seen to be believed.

As Lucy gets swept away by the rhetoric of an increasingly angry anti-war movement and the charismatic magnetism of one of its key organizers, she starts to lose Jude. In a charged scene that reminds us that every battle small and large is really about love, envy, loss, and unresolved emotions, Jude’s heart-wrenching “Revolution” reminds us that the real resolutions for peace must first be made inside the human heart.

Across The Universe is a movie I’ve waited decades for. As a young child with wide eyes, I discovered the fabled genre of the rock musical in the theater and on the widescreen. With a vivid imagination, I starred on the stage of my bedroom and entertained myself with repeated listens to the soundtracks to Hair, Godspell , and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Since those lazy pre-adolescent afternoons in the 1970s, I have sought a cinematic or theatrical feat to feel so alive that I would once again be compelled to dance around my room and sing along without a care. Efforts like Tommy, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Wiz, or Rent may have come close. But for my inclinations, no other rock opera has captured that original magic on stage or screen. Until now.

Of course, having Lennon and McCartney score already penned on the ears of eternity, Taymor had a particular advantage. With Across The Universe, Julie Taymor give us an amazing gift for our times, for all time.