“Across the Universe”: An Underrated Tribute to the Beatles

Coming Back to theaters July 29, July 31 and Aug. 1. For Showtimes and Tickets check Fathom Events.

I still remember going online back in 2006 and watching the trailer for “Across the Universe.” As a budding Beatles fan making himself familiar with their catalogue at the time, the prospect of a movie built around their music made me excited and over joyous. I mean if they can build a whole storyline around ABBA, they can surely do the same with the Beatles, whose music tell stories of their very own and even had interesting commentaries on where the group were at the time. I was quite crestfallen when the movie landed with a thud and was generally dismissed by audiences.

When I finally got the DVD I for one loved it, and I thought “Across the Universe” was a beautiful, vibrant and touching tale about a bunch of people trying to find their way through the changing landscape of America in the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, and more. Julie Taymor is a very visually amazing director who delivered films like “Titus,” and the brilliant “Frida” for movie lovers years prior, so “Across the Universe” should have been a slam dunk.

“Across the Universe” uses over thirty songs from the Beatles repertoire and tells the story of people that find one another in the changing American landscape. Jude is a lad from Liverpool who comes to America to find his long lost father. While seeking work at a college as a custodian, he meets college man Max, a raucous partying frat boy from the Midwest who he forms a bond with. Max invites Jude over to his house for a Thanksgiving dinner wrought with tension and while there he meets Max’s younger sister Lucy, a young bright eyed girl reeling from her own tragedy after her high school boyfriend dies while serving in Vietnam.

Almost immediately Jude and Lucy fall in love, and Max and Jude flee to New York, where they rent an apartment in a Bohemian neighborhood, run by the gorgeous, sexy Sadie (The enormous Dana Fuchs). While there they also meet the aspiring guitarist Jojo, and Prudence a runaway from home who is coming to terms with her own homosexuality. When Max is given a draft notice to serve in the army, the group venture out to discover themselves and crash in to various sights and sounds wholly inspired by the Beatles and their excellent music.

I’m very happy that years later movie audiences seem to be gradually catching up with the movie and are appreciating it for being so vivid, surreal, and goddamn imaginative. I’m not saying it doesn’t have flaws. The narrative is a tad trite, but that’s also kind of its charms, too. It’s like “Forrest Gump,” a movie about the chronicle of different people taking different paths in the world, except its set to “Hold Me Tight.” We’ve seen the whole Vietnam storyline in various iterations over the years, but the delivery is what makes it work.

“Across the Universe” is a tribute to the Beatles that also wildly re-imagines a lot of their music for the purposes of the narrative. So when we meet Prudence she’s singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” from afar to a cheerleader she’s in love with, and “Oh! Darling” is turned in to an angry argument between characters/lovers Jojo and Sadie, when she’s offered a big gig that causes her to leave her original band behind. My personal favorites are “Dear Prudence” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” which mark major turning points for the characters.

There are even a slew of excellent and surprising cameos from big celebrities that enhance the experience. Bono plays Dr. Roberts who sings “I Am the Walrus,” Joe Cocker appears to sing a few bars of “Come Together,” Salma Hayek appears in multiple forms as a nurse/hallucination singing “Happiness is a Warm Gun” to a drug fueled Max, and, in my favorite, Eddie Izzard appears with his own carnival to perform “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” With such a diverse cast (Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Evan Rachel Wood, T.V. Carpio, Martin Luther McCoy, and Dana Fuchs) and excellent sense of imagination, “Across the Universe” breaks all sense of reality and even the fourth wall on occasion.

Taymor changes the tones and color palettes quite often, depicting a wonderful circular sing along to “Because,” while a stream of swimmers is transformed in to a sea of corpses with Max now in battle in Vietnam. While Taymor’s visuals are impressive, “Across the Universe” is never afraid to settle down every once in a while and elaborate on a lot of the conflict among the characters and what’s driving a wedge between them. In particular Jude and Lucy’s turmoil is compelling as she loses herself in activism for the sake of Max, as if screaming louder will bring him home alive. All the while Jude can barely must enough inspiration as he’s so entrenched in his love for Lucy.

The performances all around are dynamic with Evan Rachel Wood providing some strong vocals, and Jim Sturgess keep up with Dana Fuchs whose presence is gigantic on-screen. Although she’s a supporting character, it’s not difficult to figure out why she’s an object of affection for most of the characters. Granted the PG-13 rating doesn’t allow the film to completely embrace the grit and viciousness of the sixties, but it still comes out on top in the end with some great takes on iconic music, nonetheless. It’s a cult classic now, but I hope it eventually re-emerges as an tragically overlooked musical gem.