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Romanticised Modernism in Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe (2007) April 8, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Hollywood, Musical.

Directed by Julie Taymor
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Joe Anderson

Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe is far from the extraterrestrial greatness of Lennon’s composition. But after the psychedelic vibe of compressing 34 songs into a film about love’s undying nature, a theme so often used I thought it doesn’t make sense anymore, I believe it manages to achieve more than half of my expectations; only the drawback is that while it seems to be harmless on the surface, it also tends to be forgettable. Towards the end when Bono sings “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” I cannot remember anything from it that is strong enough to incite recognition.

Frankly, the main problem is its story. I love the concept, no doubt about it. Weaving a tale using the songs of The Beatles, whose compositions are definitely some of the most recognisable tunes in music history, and injecting modern touches of imagery and lyrical arrangements is absolutely wonderful. In fact I admire Taymor for being so ambitious with her craft, coming up with an avant-garde adaptation of a Shakespeare tragedy, bringing Frida Kahlo’s life into a dimension mixed with fantastical elements, and wrapping a romantic musical as sweet as a Wonka bar. Taymor deserves to be credited for her visual style, and the way she incorporates her background in puppetry and experimental theatre reflects her artistic vision as a filmmaker; and though sometimes her playful acts do not work, it shows her devotion to her craft, that she is doing things that she really likes. But fairness aside, her stories lack the punch – – they are beautiful to look at but memory keeps you from remembering what they are all about. Taymor seems to concentrate much on her images that she forgets to polish her narrative. While she exceptionally masters the fluid visual treatment of her films, satisfying enough to fill us in for two hours, the weakness of her plot stands out. And in Across The Universe, the idea greatly overpowers her characters, shrinking them into mere cardboard figures, their presence rarely felt.

The love story of Jude and Lucy doesn’t hold much on the viewer’s retention because it is too common. The heavy Beatles soundtrack is deliberately used to support the narrative but unfortunately it does all the talking and explaining; in a way, the music carries the film into a steep of heightened emotions but it’s just there, artificially introducing and closing each fragment of their lives in those epic backdrops. The brilliant arrangement of songs is impressive – – it might as well be credited as the film’s major accomplishment – – and both Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood have successfully played their part very well. Nevertheless, Taymor could have maximised the musical as a genre, given that she has talented actors and first-rate musical arrangers, if only she is able to stitch a great narrative out of the 34 songs that she handpicked, and does not rely so much on the songs, because undoubtedly any Beatles composition, if handled seriously, will always yield a uniquely positive outcome. Primarily, this is the problem with some of the musicals being released recently – – and also the reason why only a few musicals succeed; filmmakers tend to focus more on the genre’s selling point without polishing the basics; they forget that this is a film, not just an eye candy to tease the senses. Most of the time, the weakness of the script is easily emphasised by the overblown treatment and that’s when the oversight usually starts zooming out. Musical is a difficult genre and definitely one of the most difficult to pull off.

There are efforts to fuse the shaky, tumultuous life of the band that inspired the film: their final performance together on the Apple Building rooftop in London, the Lennon-McCartney ups and downs, the Ringo-look-alike Bono singing “I Am The Walrus” in what seems like a kaleidoscopic display of schizophrenia, with matching octagon glasses to complete the psychedelic fare, and glints of transcendental meditation in the “Across The Universe” segment, so funny for being too literal I almost nudged my seatmate after seeing the Hare Krishnas. There are moments of utter brilliance too – – that scene in the bowling alley while singing “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” Lucy’s brother Max (played marvelously by Joe Anderson) leading the group in “With A Little Help From My Friends,” and the absurdity of war in “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” The choreographed sequences in “Come Together,” featuring Joe Cocker in different personas, the lavish underwater photography that continues from the group’s escapade in the fields in “Because,” and the idea behind those lovely strawberries tacked on the board, despite being blunt, in “Strawberry Fields Forever” are very commendable.

Undoubtedly, the 60s has always been great inspiration for writers to come up with stories that reflect the precarious life during that decade. In fact even Haruki Murakami has his share of stories in “A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism” in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman which delves more on the emotional impact of the time to its people. As for myself, I always dream of being born and, of course, living in the 60s – – the spirited lives of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean; the French New Wave; the filmmakers whom I revere making their most memorable films; the Beatles; the beatniks Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac; the rise and fall of Kennedy; the launch of spacecrafts and the battle between America and Russia; the pop and counterculture – – everything – – I could go on and on and mention everything that I wish I had during the era that I was born but were all in the 60s and eventually die reminiscing all the things that I didn’t have. All my knowledge of it were from the records passed to me by friends and relatives, films I learned from school, information I gained from books, and experiences I read from novels. Everything abstract. I’m not there. I am but a speck of forgotten memory. But one thing is for sure though: my heart and my soul will always be in the 60s. When no one is looking, I will slip out of this body and pull the plug. * * *



1. pebi - May 1, 2008

i agree with you on the story.. un ang downfall ng movie kahit na everything is almost perfect…pero kasi eh, hot si jim sturgess :)

2. Richard Bolisay - May 3, 2008

haha pebi, i understand the jim sturgess sentiment. :D thanks for dropping by. daan ka ulit. :)

3. romina - June 5, 2008

finally got to watch the film, and i must say i also found the story to be a weakness. ang daming characters which may have been the reason why they incorporated those 34 songs of the beatles, thus, turning out as if the characters’ individual stories’ were just stitched in where it was most convenient. the song arrangements (of the ones na kilala ko) and the imagery was good, though i don’t think it’ll have a place on my favorite films list.

i’m also a bit of an old soul…although i have an affinity more for the late 60s – 70s era because of the music – ang mga taon kung andoon ang beatles at mga classic rock bands ng 70s. :D

4. romina - June 5, 2008

hmm, weird nung time stamp dun sa comment ko. when i posted it, it’s actually something like 4:20 am on a friday, june 6. one day late siya :D

5. Richard Bolisay - June 7, 2008

the timestamp, i guess, is set in West. (hanggang dito ba naman may isyu pa rin ng orientalism at discourse and power, hehe).

across the universe is good, forgettable, and cool. it has its moments, just not enough to call it satisfying. the three stars i gave could probably account for excitement before seeing it, and while it disappoints quite largely, i still believe taymor needs more time to realize her style to make her “really great film” and in years maybe she will.

thanks for hopping, romina.

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