When I first saw the trailer for "Across the Universe" I was pretty sure that I was going to like it. I have dozens and dozens of covers of Beatles songs, having put together playlists for each of the Beatles albums, in many instances having been able to find cover versions of all of the songs on a particular album. Also, in my youth, I contemplated a stage musical that would use the songs of Stevie Nicks to tell the story of the Welsh witch Rhiannon, so I appreciate the inclination. Besides, with 200-plus Beatles songs, the problem would not be finding enough songs for an entire musical but rather drawing a line and getting the finished movie in at under 2 hours.
I would have said that using the music of the Beatles as the soundtrack for a movie is a fool proof idea, but that was because I was taking the idea at face value and had forgotten about "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Then I remember that "I am Sam" used contemporary covers of Beatles songs, but that example is really not on point since they are used in the background, the way Simon & Garfunkle's songs were used in "The Graduate." "Across the Universe" is a more traditional musical, even if it is, in Roger Ebert's memorable phrase, a musical "where we walk into the theater humming the songs."
Before we are a minute into this 2007 movie I knew it was going to work, as soon as Jude (Jim Sturgess), sitting on a stormy beach, turns to the camera and sings: "Is there anybody going to listen to my story, All about the girl who came to stay?" I was reminded of the beginning of "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet" when the newscaster does the whole "Two households, both alike in dignity..." prologue and I knew this "modern" version was going to work. It is not often when a movie is able to convince you in the prologue that it is going to work, but when it does (e.g., "Beauty and the Beast," "Sleepless in Seattle"), you tend to remember them.
Because the characters all have names from Beatles songs, from Jude and Lucy to Sadie, Jo-Jo, and Prudence, there is an expectation that the songs from which they get their names are all going to pop up during the proceedings (or the end credits). But that does not prove to be the case. Sometimes a single line from a song pops up, so Beatles fans need to pay attention even when characters are not singing. The plot is basic boy (Sturgess's Jude) meets girl (Evan Rachel Wood's Lucy), boy loses girl, on to the requisite happy ending, played out against the turmoil of the 1960s, which means the War in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the like. Part of the fun is seeing the new contexts in which these familiar songs pop up, both in terms of the times, as with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Strawberry Fields Forever," and "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," and in terms of relationships, like with "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
Julie Taymor previously directed "Titus" and "Frida," it is not surprising to those relatively few souls who have seen both of those films that she pulls this one off. A major treat here is seeing how Taymor makes specific lyrics work so well, from the "Won't you come out and play" from "Dear Prudence" to the "Jude, Judee, Judee" part of "Hey, Jude," and even a "duh" moment when she works in "I Want You (She's So Heavy)." I can also add to the list the nice use of the final chord from "A Day in the Life."
The cast are relative unknowns, with Evan Rachel Wood the most familiar fact (but when Taymor suggests on the bonus disc that nobody knew Wood culd sing I have to respond that everybody who saw the final episode of the second season of "Once and Again," where Wood sang "Red Red Robin" after the wedding was well aware Wood can sing). It says something of the quality of the singing if I say that Wood might be the weakest vocalist in the cast and I have no complaints regarding what she does on . Dana Fuchs' Sadie was my overall favorite, belting out "Helter Skelter," "Oh, Darling," and "Why Don't We Do it in the Road?" But I could listen to Sturgess sing just anything and some of my favorite parts here are the harmonies, most notably on "Because."
Yes, I know all of the songs are available on the soundtrack, and that is fine for driving around in the car, but listening to these songs on the DVD is way better. Despite all the visual treats, "Across the Universe" is a great movie for playing in the background.