Film Review: Across the Universe

30 06 2009

Kara Bertrand
Humber College Student
Written: March 2008

This article was written for an opinion writing class at Humber College.

Across the Universe illustrates the turbulent 60s through the music of the Beatles, complete with psychedelic colours and chaotic scenes of violence and war. Directed by Julie Taymor, it follows the lives of several characters, all named after a Beatles song. The movie opens with “Jude” (Jim Sturgess) sitting on the beach asking “isn’t anybody going to listen to my story?” Indeed, there will be.

The film is a treat for Beatles fans, offering not only the music and lyrics of many of the band’s most famous songs, but also subtle and obvious references attached to their life and song. All of the characters in the movie are named after Beatles’ songs. Jude (“Hey Jude,”) Lucy (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,”) Max (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,”) Prudence (“Dear Prudence,”) Sadie (“Sexy Sadie,”) and JoJo (“Get Back,”) just to name a few. And if it can’t get more obvious, Jude is from Liverpool.

The film moves the viewer through a year in the decade, following the characters through what can only be described as the most “far out” spectacle in their lives. The Beatles’ songs create a soundtrack and dialogue for the characters and their stories. It starts out during “Hold Me Tight,” where Lucy and her boyfriend, Daniel, innocently dance at a high school dance while Jude and his girlfriend Molly grind up against each other in a Liverpool club. The trend of innocence continues throughout the movie, showing the common transition of American families in the 60s: naïveté, chaos, war and finally peace.

A favourite scene is in fact the saddest scene of the movie: “Let It Be.” The song starts off with a boy singing the song sans instruments and it turns out he’s hiding behind a car during the Detroit riots. The scene changes to his funeral and the character of JoJo is introduced as the boy’s relative. This scene is interchanged with the funeral of Lucy’s boyfriend, who died in Vietnam. A strong gospel voice is accompanied by an even more powerful choir. The song, already often used as inspiration during hard times, creates a powerful background to the tears and pain present on the screen.

Jim Sturgess stars as Jude, a British artist living in New York City.Psychedelic overtones are present within the first 30 minutes of the film, with a bowling scene that uses bright colours and flashing lights to enhance the song, “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” The scene is perfectly choreographed, with extras bowling in time. It’s a playful scene, showing the innocence of America and what is counted for fun at the time.

The psychadelia continues as the characters accompany singer Sadie in an industry party of “Dr. Roberts,” played by Bono of U2. Bono’s rendition of “I Am The Walrus” turns an already psychedelic song into a seemingly drug-induced euphoric tune coupled with colourful rainbow scenes and cartoon inspired images. “For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” introduces a new bunch of drug-inspired characters including the blue people, the Hendersons, and Henry the Horse, all with circus drawings in the background. The viewer will soon feel transfixed to a new time and place, possibly followed by a case of the munchies.

Colour plays an interesting twist in the movie, with yellow often showcasing a predominantly innocent point in the plot. For example, yellow tones encapsulate the dance scene with Lucy and her boyfriend, as well as her dreams of him returning from war during “It Won’t Be Long.” Red is used to show darkness, blood and fear. It originally is shown during “With a Little Help From My Friends,” where Jude and Max are drinking and doing drugs in Max’s Princeton dorm room. It is later used during “Strawberry Fields Forever,” when the characters begin to suffer. Max is in Vietnam, terrified and watching as bombs are thrown on the jungles of the country. However, those bombs are in fact deep, red strawberries. In a powerful montage, Jude throws the strawberries around the room, creating juxtaposition against the stark white room he is in. The scene changes between Vietnam and America, showing the similarities of the breakdowns of both places.

Most of the actors in the movie are unknown (with the exception of Bono,) allowing the viewer to be introduced to a new face and voice without being distracted from the music and plot. This seems like a conscious decision made by Taymor, wanting to showcase the music as the highlight. Choreography holds a special place within the movie, often creating dance sequences in which the characters are moved around in time with extras, showcasing the dance of everyday life.

Those who don’t like the Beatles music can take solace in the fact that all of the songs have changed in some way, shape or form. Beats are added and taken away, blues renditions are present in a number of the songs, and some are accompanied with nothing more than a few string instruments and a melodic voice. Music is used as dialogue and background to the characters, often telling an entire feeling or conversation in only two minutes. The soundtrack, needless to say, is spotless.

Now, only one question remains: What do Paul and Ringo think?