From "All This and World War II" to "I Am Sam," Beatles songs tend to turn up in movies that are trying to make Grand Statements About Life, The Universe And Everything.
"Across the Universe" is no exception, an ambitious musical that aims to be as big and sprawling as its title. Equal parts "Hair" and "Forrest Gump," this is an epic Peter Max collage-style portrait of (cue dramatic outro chord to "A Day in the Life") The 1960s. Evan Rachel Wood might get top billing, but the 33 songs in the soundtrack are the true stars of the show.
This is problematic for several reasons. On the one hand, if you want to evoke that era, Beatles songs are as universal as reference points get (tellingly, it's odd to see this parallel-universe version of the '60s in which the Beatles themselves are never directly referenced). On the other, that universality works against the film because your real-life personal context for each song keeps bumping up against the images onscreen.
Still, "Across the Universe" is fun to watch. Director Julie Taymor ("Frida," Broadway's "The Lion King,") keeps things in constant motion with everything from football practices to protest marches precisely choreographed. The film touches on Vietnam, radical politics, racial tension, drug use, the sexual revolution and other period hot buttons as the characters move through America's Vietnam war years.
But mostly, "Across the Universe" is about a girl, with a surprisingly conventional boy-gets/loses/regains-girl story arc. It opens with Liverpool native Jude (Jim Sturgess) hunkered down on a beach, smirking his way through John Lennon's "Rubber Soul" chestnut "Girl." The girl in question is Lucy, played by Raleigh native Wood, who plunges into the underground counterculture with Jude and her brother Max (Joe Anderson) after her soldier boyfriend dies in Vietnam.
As you can guess from the names, the film's unsubtle reference points often induce winces. A Joplin-esque blues singer is introduced as Sadie, and you just know somebody's gonna call her "sexy." Max wields a silver hammer in one scene. And when the cute Asian girl with a thing for unattainable crushes is introduced as Prudence, it's only a matter of time before she's huddled in a closet and the rest of the cast is gathered outside singing, "Dear Prudence, won't you come out to play?" The only surprise is that "Hey Jude" doesn't serve as the big show closer (this being a love story, the climactic song is easy to figure out).
Taymor wisely recasts a lot of the soundtrack's Beatles songs, with intriguing results. In contrast to the jubilant original, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" becomes a ballad of unrequited and sexually confused longing. "Oh Darling" becomes an onstage lover's quarrel between Sadie and her guitarist boyfriend. And Jude sings "Revolution" as a jealous lover's complaint.
Then there are the wickedly funny star cameos, including Bono as a snake-oil hippie cowboy shaman on "I Am the Walrus," Joe Cocker as a wild-eyed homeless guy singing "Come Together" and Salma Hayek as a mob of devilish nurses wielding syringes on "Happiness Is a Warm Gun." Throw in some of the weirder set pieces -- military recruiting posters coming to life to howl "I Want You" at boxer-clad draftees, as they carry the Statue of Liberty through a swamp and answer, "She's So Heavy!" -- and there are some snicker-out-loud moments. As ridiculous as much of "Across the Universe" is, the movie seems proudly aware of it.
So it's not as good as it could have been, but "Across the Universe" is hardly a disaster. One of these days, it would be interesting if somebody got out from under the weight of history and just made a straight-up romantic musical with Beatles songs. The tunes are there -- a lot closer than across the universe.
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