Julie Taymor’s kaleidoscopic frenzied masterpiece Across the Universe is one of the most unique visions to ever hit theaters in the last few decades. With the thesis and intention of an art film, it transcends the medium altogether to make a harmonious piece of life, not only film. Reflecting the culture and counter culture of the 1960’s equally through the music of the Fab Four and through a unique visual approach, Taymor constructs a visually intoxicating film that will last with you like a good LSD trip.
Taymor is an auteur working on a platform where most would be shunned aside. However, she is able to get enough attention for her audacity and her risk taking, the world becomes her oyster. Making the controversial teen film Thirteen and becoming an established director on the stage, Taymor took a huge risk when she directed the Broadway production of Disney’s seminal animated feature The Lion King. Mixing race politics and beautiful design aesthetic, Taymor’s production landed at the top of everyone’s lists.
And then we have Across the Universe. Using the lyrics of the Beatles music as set and mood pieces, Taymor’s film is not the most conventional musical. Musicals are flashy no doubt, flamboyant as well; but Taymor’s unique visual approach goes for gut punch enthralling, full of wonder than just plain old theatricality. The use of the Beatles’ songs is also unique in a way. Rather than the music only being the dialogue between characters, like it is with other jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! Or Moulin Rouge, Across the Universe uses the music more as “thought shots” and extension to what the characters are thinking.
A grand expression that the director utilizes throughout the film with the music is the comparison of the culture and the evolution of the music itself. You can see, as everything between the cast of characters – Jude, Lucy, Max, Sadie, Leroy, etc. – the choice in song selection veers towards the Beatles’ own history. That is to say, the beginning half of the film reflects the Beatles’ early period, using songs like “Hold Me Tight”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, and “All My Loving”. However as the characters and story evolve and unfurl, so does the music. The exploration into drugs and the city commences songs like “I Am the Walrus” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” The selection in music culminates in the “Revolution” and public disobedience and riots that occur both within the history of the story as well as with the characters. Sadie (the hard thrashing, Janis Joplin-esque Dana Fuchs) rocks the already tough piece “Helter Skelter” against the backdrop of crashing newspaper articles and police brutality. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is used both to express the government’s yearning through the draft as well as personal yearnings of various characters, such as the closeted Prudence (delightful T.V. Carpio). While the music sets the mood for the tone of the characters, such songs as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Across the Universe” have both a personal meaning to characters as well as an existential one. The latter, most notably, provide the most pure introspection a character has given in a musical. Jude works the film as an artist, composing art with bleeding strawberries in “Strawberry Field Forever”, symbolizing the beauty that is ultimately destroyed during the Vietnam War. Exploring personal emotions, art, and the effects of war, Jim Sturgess’s fully realized Jude not only sings the song, but lives the song.
The imagery is an essential part of the film, as it juxtaposes the calmness of one movement (or lack thereof) with the chaos of another. Taymor, who seems to be just as much of a visual director as a story one, has the characters in the suburbs look perfect, but as they move to the city, their locale and environment become as grungy as the culture itself. The insane visual perfection during such narcotic inspired numbers (which may not be totally necessary to the film’s success) is both fascinating and slightly repulsive. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” utilizes a very paper mache look to it, painting its guest star, Eddie Izzard, in colors to make him resemble less of a master of ceremonies and more of a doll. It strikes as Taymor’s own bizarre interpretation of Joel Grey’s Emcee from Cabaret, but on drugs. “I Am the Walrus” and the ending credits of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” are drenched with solaris, a filter which heightens colors to a nauseating rate where every light source and source of dark become candy colored and glaring. Bono struts during the scene, in control of the visual aesthetic and the situation. But we’re dropped off, after the trip, to the calming eloquence of “Because”, taking place in the tranquil space of a field of grass and the nearby lake.
The most visually compelling piece might be the strange and disturbing “Happiness is a Warm Gun”. Stationed in a hospital, presumably for posttraumatic stress syndrome (or shell shocked), the war machine churns out an automaton out of Max, who has seen the horrors of war and is bed ridden. Mother Superior is brought to life by a dancing and careening almost uncontrollably after arriving to bless the patients as they lay there waiting to die. The beds rise and several nurses, in the visage of Salma Hayek, move promiscuously to the music. They all lean back with a syringe with an unknown medication, with a floating and hovering nude woman. Nurse Hayek injects him with the needle, and he’s projected off the bed, in a false sense of euphoria. As uneventful as that scene is, the most compelling thing about it is that it’s minimalistic. The props, so to speak, are where flamboyancy lays. The priest, the nurse, and the needle, but the set itself remains fairly nondescript.
Julie Taymor’s singular and unique vision of using the Beatles song to wove a love story works incredibly. The covers are superb, each lending itself to fir the context of the film as well as satiate purists. The film is visually profound, sonically unmatched, and a piece of artistic film hiding out in a more mainstream area. Perfectly emulating the times (the sex, the drugs, and all that rock and roll!), Taymor composes all the chaos of the era as it may have been. It’s a spectacle that’s unrivaled by many within its genre and a polarizing masterpiece. Clashing culture, music, and art, Taymor doesn’t let down.