“Sacrilege” is a term usually reserved for something that offends or desecrates religion. But after viewing Across the Universe, the word immediately comes to mind. Although visually intriguing and, needless to say, carrying a fantastic soundtrack, the movie as a whole is an insult to The Beatles and their fans.
Before attacking this spectacle, attention should be paid to its successes. The film does capture the look of the 1960s and the psychedelic atmosphere of The Beatles’ music. It is two hours of elaborate sets, characters and situations, which result in pleasing eye candy. From a purely directorial standpoint, Julie Taymor clearly has talent and an eye for what is interesting to watch. Also, some of the performances are well done, but this leads to one of the main problems with the film.
In Across the Universe, there is a large contrast between faithful renditions and ignorant butchering. The actors playing Jude and his friend, Max, are generally good singers who do appealing, if useless, outbursts into song. On the other hand, characters such as Sadie and JoJo bring a Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix (respectively) vocal quality that is unbearable for the material. It is horrible to watch actors make atrocities out of these songs.
In addition, they are also placed with extreme randomness throughout. True, there are a few times when the songs do fit with their scene (like the simple but intriguing opening scene featuring “Girl”), but most of the time it is obviously just a cheap way to get another track in.
Another trauma occurs when the audience must suffer the corny inclusion of inside jokes and references. Not only are all the main characters named after songs, but there are one-line winks at the audience that fall flat. One character tells Jude, “I thought I’d be retired when I was 64,” and when Prudence arrives at Sadie’s house, Jude tells her “she came in through the bathroom window.”
In addition, the movie itself makes little sense. The protagonist is Jude, an English dock worker who travels to America to find his father. He accomplishes this quickly, and the remainder of the film is part love triangle and part Vietnam protest film involving Lucy, Max, Sadie and JoJo. The elaborate scenes, while great to watch, take away from the logic of the film. Often it seems as if explanatory scenes have been cut to include more wackiness. Screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais need to focus more on how to tell a story and less on making a jumbled mess of The Beatles nostalgia.
As for the special features, a commentary track, extended musical performances and several featurettes are included, among other extras. The commentary is by Taymor and music producer/composer Elliot Goldenthal, and it is surprisingly insightful and interesting. They never run out of tidbits to point out.
The additional performances, and especially the two alternate takes of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” are entertaining enough for their short duration. Finally, the featurettes are very in-depth and educational. The topics covered include how the film was made, who the actors are and how the music was remade.
Across the Universe takes the genius of The Beatles’ music and turns it into lesser versions created solely as an outline for a nonsensical plot. However, the special features are well worth the purchase for those who actually enjoy the film. To put it bluntly, The Beatles are the most influential group in the history of modern music and their albums are still regarded in the highest respect. Just let it be.