Julie Taymor and The Beatles: She Can't Work It Out

Hey, Jude: Jim Sturgess as a John Lennonesque musician who comes to New York in the early '60s in the slick yet flat Julie Taymor production. (Photos By Abbot Genser)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007

Here's a no-fail equation: Take one Julie Taymor (the creative genius behind Broadway's "The Lion King," the visionary director of "Frida" and "Titus"), add the music of the Beatles and come up with: something great, right?

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Oh, how very wrong. "Across the Universe," in which Taymor shoehorns, contorts and otherwise bullies some of the Fab Four's greatest hits into a vapid Hollywood musical, is the kind of project that must have looked great on paper. Which is where it should have stayed, the more conveniently to be scrunched into a ball and unceremoniously placed into the circular file.

Coming on the heels of a summer when the movie musical was so brilliantly reinvented in the sleeper "Once," and celebrated in the cheerfully subversive "Hairspray," the pop-cultural pastiche represented by "Across the Universe" rings particularly, starchily false, not least because it seems so cannily designed to pander to boomer nostalgia. It's "Forrest Gump" for pseudo-hipsters.

Evan Rachel Wood plays Lucy, an innocent high school kid in the early 1960s; exceptionally promising newcomer Jim Sturgess plays Jude, a Liverpool lad who has just arrived in America and befriended Lucy's brother, Max (Joe Anderson). The three friends wind up in Greenwich Village at the height of the era's cultural and political upheaval, occasionally breaking into song and even dancing now and then. Joining them in the human Peter Max collage are their friends Sadie and JoJo -- you get the idea. By the time Prudence (oh, Dear) arrives through the bathroom window, the puns just keep coming, and you know it won't be long before we see Max making a few small repairs with his silver hammer.

Jude's picaresque lightly interweaves with the Beatles' own, as his Liverpudlian wit increasingly comes to recall that of John Lennon; meanwhile the blues duo Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and JoJo (Martin Luther) are clearly analogues for Janis and Jimi. All of the era's most familiar stock characters, visual tropes and political slogans are given their due in a series of slick, winking production numbers that, for all their ambition and technical virtuosity, feel oddly corporate and airless. The film's final sequence, meant to recall the Beatles' own final concert on the roof of Apple Records, is a pale "High School Musical" imitation of what in real life was a powerful artistic and epochal finale.

Dubious as such a confectionary repurposing may be, it still might have worked had Taymor created an arresting visual and sonic universe of her own. But viewers expecting "Across the Universe" to evince the director's vaunted visual imagination will be sorely disappointed by a production that is bizarrely flat. The most memorable production number is set to "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" at a draft induction center, a set piece that nods to "Metropolis," with a slight bow toward Joseph Cornell and his boxed assemblages.

Taymor, whose work with massive puppets is legendary, unleashes some of those huge creations in one or two sequences, but for the most part her energy is devoted to figuring out how to get the Gumplike Jude from New York out to California and back. Her answer arrives via a lifeless cameo appearance by Bono in the role of a psychedelic guru named Dr. Robert, who sings "I Am the Walrus," which means, of course, he's really the Eggman. Joe Cocker, Eddie Izzard and Salma Hayek show up briefly in a cavalcade of cameos reminiscent of "Tommy." It's all too cute for words. In fact, it's all too cute, period.

Perhaps most unforgivable of all, "Across the Universe" features some appalling arrangements of the Beatles' best-loved songs, the schmaltzy orchestrations of which echo the ersatz happenings on the screen. Indeed, these versions of the tunes -- in which speeding up or slowing down takes the place of real innovation -- recall another recent pop musical, "Masked and Anonymous," which featured some truly breathtaking arrangements of Bob Dylan songs. That movie was a magnificent mess, but at least it preserved the integrity of the music that drove it.

An alternative title to "Across the Universe" kept crossing my mind as I watched it: Nothing is real.

Across the Universe (133 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and AMC Loews Georgetown) is rated PG-13 for drug content, nudity, sexuality, violence and profanity.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company