Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Verse Chorus Universe

One of the nice things about this modern era of ours with our flying cars and robot maids is that thanks to DVD, we get a chance to have two releases for a movie. I reviewed Julie Taymor's Across the Universe for Pop Culture America back in October and now, with the home video just out this week, I get to review it again.

Across the Universe (d. Julie Taymor)

When I first reviewed Julie Taymor's Beatles musical Across the Universe, I called it "a glorious mess." (See capsule at right.) I'm afraid that may have come out a little more negative than I intended. It is glorious, and it's certainly a messy motion picture, but that chaotic quality is fully intentional and one of the reasons I enjoy it so.

I should get this out of the way right off the top: I am a rabid Beatles fan. It would be easy to dismiss any review of Beatle-based material I come up with by simply noting, "Well of course the Beatles fan liked the Beatles musical. Duh." Easy, but wrong.

When I first heard about this project, my initial reaction was, "Oh no." See, I remember other attempts at reinterpreting the Beatles; clunkers like All This and World War II and the infamous Peter Frampton/Bee Gees vehicle Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (which I sorta kinda like, but for all the wrong reasons). So walking into the local theater for Across the Universe, my expectations were not high.

But as someone once said, I should have known better.

Julie Taymor is one of the most ambitious directors going today. Her first film, 1999's Titus, took on one of the most daunting Shakespeare plays, and gave it a witty, wiggy, highly stylized spin that made the 400-year-old source material as fresh and experimental as anything written last week. For 2002's Frida, she managed to bring the paintings of Frida Kahlo to life.

With Across the Universe, Taymor interprets another major artist. And the results are remarkable.

The story is as simple as can be: Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy ... Well, I don't want to spoil anything.

The Boy in question is Jude (Hey!), played with verve by newcomer Jim Sturgess. The Girl is Lucy (who's not in the sky and doesn't wear any diamonds), played with luminosity and the voice of an angel by Evan Rachel Wood.

Along the way, they meet JoJo, Prudence, Maxwell, Sadie (who's sexy), Mr. Kite, Dr. Robert, Rita (who's lovely) ... You get the idea. One wonders why Taymor couldn't work in a Father MacKenzie or a Polythene Pam.

But the magic here lies not in the plot but in the music and the daring, inventive interpretations of familiar songs. I'm pretty sure that neither John Lennon nor Paul McCartney had an unrequited lesbian crush in mind when they wrote "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," but the fact that the song works so well in that radical context is testament to both the song's universality and the strength of the sequence's images. Similarly, listening to "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" all these years, I never envisioned it set in a bizarre, dreamworld VA hospital. Now I'll have a hard time imagining it anywhere else.

Throughout the movie, styles and strategies bang up against one another, sometimes jarringly, most of the time with stunning results. As Lucy, Wood delivers a heartbreaking "If I Fell" that rises from the truest depths of the character's soul. That's followed almost immediately by a crazed, feverish, utterly impossible take of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" complete with animated, singing Uncle Sam recruitment posters and a plastic toy Viet Nam.

All this chaos works because the movie is out to evoke a chaotic time: the 1960s, when free love and military police actions stood side by side. This isn't a history lesson. This is the visceral, incomprehensible time itself, projected through the Beatle prism. This isn't a time capsule, either. Sadly, many of the same issues that were so divisive in the 60s are still on our agenda today and the movie is not shy about pointing them out.

The Beatles, like Shakespeare, belong to the ages now. Every generation will take a crack at them, will try to make them its own. With Across the Universe, Julie Taymor and her talented, fresh-faced cast have set the bar exceptionally high for the next generation.

4 stars

A few quick notes specifically about the DVD: Across the Universe is currently out in a two-disc edition with the movie and its commentary track on one disc and making-of featurettes and extended scenes on the other. The commentary is a pretty lackluster affair as Taymor and composer Elliot Goldenthal discuss some of the thought processes behind the movie. But they're both fairly low-energy, with Goldenthal disappearing for lengthy stretches that made me wonder if the poor guy had a bladder issue. The second disc is a different story, however. Rather than put out one of those phony baloney extended editions, on the second disc, extended performances of the songs appear separate from the movie itself. It's nice to have this material, but it's even nicer to not have it crammed into the movie just so the marketing division can slap a sticker on the package. The featurettes, with the participation of not only Taymor and Goldenthal, but the whole cast and many other crew members, are as lively as the commentary is plodding. It's a decent, if not great, DVD. DVD Extras: 2 1/2 stars

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