“Is there anybody going to listen to my story?” Jude asks the audience. This question at the beginning of “Across the Universe” is deceptive, masking what the film is truly going to be. In a movie musical based totally on the work of The Beatles, “listen” would seem to be the operative term. However, like all good films, it is primarily about what you see.
Another deceiving word is “story,” implying that a narrative will be the primary focus of the film. While there is a distinct arc for the characters, the musical numbers are what the film is really about, and because they are so expressive and experiential, so much like the songs themselves, you probably won’t mind the thinness of the plot.
What little story there is revolves around characters named after famous Beatles songs. Lucy (without the diamonds), Jude, Maxwell (sans silver hammer), Sadie, Jojo, Prudence, Dr. Robert (who is apparently, also the walrus), they’re all here. Even Mr. Kite, played by Eddie Izzard, makes an appearance in a spectacular carnival scene depicting his show on trampoline.
Jude has come from (guess where) Liverpool, to find his father at Princeton. There he meets and becomes friends with Max, and soon accompanies him to New York City. They move into an apartment with Sadie, Prudence, and Jojo, who have all come in search of meaning in the midst of the chaotic 1960s. Soon, Max’s sister Lucy joins them and quickly falls in love with Jude. As the political movement against the Vietnam War heats up, Lucy finds herself marching and protesting while Jude withdraws to express his frustrations through art.
There are also a myriad of subplots involving the other characters, but Lucy and Jude’s is really the only one of much consequence, as it helps deliver the film’s delicious final moments their emotional push. It’s best to realize that the story is mainly meant as a vehicle to get from one musical number to the next. It was a wise decision to fit the story around the songs rather than the other way around.
If you go see the movie, you’ll probably go to see those musical numbers, anyway. And they are everything you’d want, and more. Director Julie Taymor, well known in the theatre for her inventive visual style, brings the perfect blend of surrealism, choreography, collage, and montage. It’s hard to imagine many of the scenes being done any other way because they fit so well.
Consider “I Want You”, accompanying a scene where Max is drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam. Instead of romantic obsession, it depicts the dehumanization of American soldiers as they (literally) carry the nation on their shoulders. Or there’s “Come Together” where it seems that all the diverse denizens of the Big Apple, led by Joe Cocker no less, take to the streets to welcome the characters to the city. I could go on.
Films like this are rare, these days; works of art that try to achieve an experience, a barrage of feelings, rather than a progression of logic. It’s a fitting tribute to the greatest rock band of all time. You’re practically guaranteed to see things you’ve never seen in a film before. So take advantage while you can. After all, with a soundtrack like this, how can you really go wrong?