Roger Ebert called it “a bold, beautiful, visually enchanting musical.” James Berardinelli said that it “fails spectacularly,” and went so far as to liken it to the Peter Frampton/Bee Gees version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, widely viewed as the Heaven’s Gate of musicals. And it’s not just those two reviews – as a perusal of IMBD and Rotten Tomatoes makes clear, few movies have engendered such widely divergent views. No question about it - people either loved Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe or absolutely hated it – with very few opinions falling in the middle of those two extremes.
You can count me firmly in the former category. Sure, the story is basically one cliché after another: a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-finds-girl-in-the-end story set in the 1960s that manages to somehow work in such seminal events the Detroit riots, Vietnam, S.D.S., and the takeover of Columbia University into the plot. As each major character is introduced – Jude, Lucy, Sadie, JoJo, Max – you can barely believe the corniness of it all, but at the same time you smile to yourself, waiting for the obvious songs to come.
And in the end, that’s what the movie boils down to – the songs. Were they embarrassing renditions of well-loved classics, the movie would be a catastrophic failure, and worth watching only for the pleasure of making fun of the principals. But they’re not – they stand on their own, in some cases (T.V. Carpio’s melancholy rendition of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”) less a remake than an entire re-imagining of the original. Lead actors Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, and Joe Anderson can all carry a tune, and with professionals like T-Bone Burnett and Elliot Goldenthal at the helm, manage to put their own spin on several songs where many would have considered it sacrilege to even try something outside of the original arrangement. “Girl” becomes a plaintive plight; “I’ve Just Seen A Face” becomes a rockabilly stomp; the emotional impact that Wood brings to “If I Fell” simply affirms the song’s status as a classic standard.
There are also several cameo performances that are accomplished with varying degrees of success: Joe Cocker’s “Come Together” is terrific, but while it’s nice to see that Bono occasionally has a sense of humor, his versions of “I Am the Walrus” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” don’t come close to approaching the intensity and inventiveness of the originals. Eddie Izzard’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is just plain silly and doesn’t really work, even if you take the accompanying visual into account. That’s probably the fault of the song itself, which is hardly near the top of Lennon’s pantheon.
What the reviews make obvious is that this movie won’t work for everybody. But much like Moulin Rouge, I found Across the Universe to be a wonderful experience: one that enhanced, rather than damaged, the Beatles’ legacy.