Building a new spectacle from time-tested Beatles‘ songs is a bit like riding a roller coaster with no safety restraints; it’s a risky and possibly catastrophic endeavor but one that could make for a wild, memorable ride.
In 2006, Cirque du Soleil took on the challenge with the Las Vegas-based stage show “Love” and clearly found a way to preserve the musical thrills while adding a lot of innovative new twists. Just a year later, we get the movie musical “Across the Universe” — not quite as successful an attempt but one that rides familiar songs into some fun, eye-catching new territory.
Directed by Julie Taymor (“Frida,” Broadway’s “The Lion King”) the film slips 33 Beatles tunes into a fictional ‘60s-era love story that takes inspiration from the time period and individual song lyrics. (There might be a bit too much of the latter, in fact, what with characters whose names pop right off the sheet music and a bevy of Beatles references planted not so discreetly throughout the script.)
The plot, in a nutshell, is Liverpudlian boy (Jude, played by Jim Sturgess) treks across the pond in search of his lost father and finds enduring friendship and the love of his life (Lucy, played by Evan Rachel Wood). He and his buddies, who all live in Greenwich Village, get sucked into the antiwar and counterculture movements, which seem to help them make sense of the tumultuous times. Fab Four songs, performed by the cast, are woven throughout.
Despite the movie’s grounding in well-known music and historic events, Miss Taymor and crew clearly intend to put a modern spin on the Beatles’ oeuvre. Costumes are retro rather than vintage, songs have been reinterpreted and glitzed up with showy dance routines (choreographed by the masterful Daniel Ezralow) and the whole production feels more like what Baz Luhrmann and the creators of “Rent” would dream up collectively than something Paul McCartney might imagine.
At times the filmmakers’ ambition is fully realized and they use the Beatles base to catapult viewers into a vibrant visual world (particularly in the “I Want You” military draft scene and the trippy “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” hospital bit). Between these highlights, the shiny glaze coating everything may occasionally start to feel a bit too saccharine.
As a showcase of talent, “Across the Universe” scores high. Who knew Miss Wood could sing? Who knew about the well-kept secret that is Mr. Sturgess? (This is his first leading role.) Both leads not only nail the musical portions of their roles, they exude a realistic passion for each other and their characters’ pursuits (Lucy’s antiwar activism and Jude’s hobby-turned-profession of doodling).
Similarly, the peripheral players deliver strong performances, including Joe Anderson as Lucy’s brother fighting in Vietnam, recording artist Martin Luther McCoy as a Jimi Hendrix knockoff, and Dana Fuchs of the off-Broadway show “Love, Janis” as his feisty lover and band mate. Look for punchy cameos by Salma Hayek, Eddie Izzard and Joe Cocker. (An appearance by Bono as mind-altering-substance adherent Dr. Robert doesn’t have as much oomph.)
Even if its execution earns slightly lower marks, the flick earns an A for effort. It takes guts to steer beloved musical material onto new tracks, and given that this undertaking doesn’t derail in the process, it deserves some praise.
TITLE: “Across the Universe”
RATING: PG-13 (For some drug content, sexuality, nudity, violence and language)
CREDITS: Directed by Julie Taymor. Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. Choreography by Daniel Ezralow. Original score by Elliot Goldenthal and song production by T-Bone Burnett, Mr. Goldenthal and Teese Gohl. Costumes by Albert Wolsky.
RUNNING TIME: 133 minutes
WEB SITE: www.acrosstheuniverse.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS