"Across the Universe" takes its character names, music and whole inspiration from the Beatles’ music. Such a strategy could produce greatness (such as "Tommy" or "The Wall") or it could produce something like the dreadful 1978 "Sgt. Peppers" movie starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees (I apologize for reminding you of that).
I’m happy to report that "Across the Universe" bears no resemblance to that earlier disaster. It’s a visually stunning, sumptuous slice of Americana and a movie you’ll want to see repeatedly. It’s charm begins with a cast of unknowns that is spiked with clever cameos.
Jude (Jim Sturgess), a young dock worker from Liverpool, stows away to America to find his birth father. Once here, he falls in love with Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and befriends Max (Joe Anderson), Jo-Jo (Martin Luther), Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and Prudence (T.V. Carpio). Seeing a pattern with the names?
The characters live — in Forrest Gump-style — through the usual benchmarks of 1960s culture. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the drug culture and, of course, all that great Beatles music form the backdrop for a story of lovers and friends. The setting, issues and story are all familiar, just like the songs. It plays like a celebration of not only Beatles music, but one of the most contentious decades in American history. (It strikes me that this summer’s "Hairspray" showed love to that decade, too. Perhaps we love telling the story of the ’60s because it looks so good on film. Hmm, where are the musicals set in the 1970s and ’80s?)
You can predict the movie’s flaws going in. A story constructed to fit one band’s songs is bound to seem clumsy now and then. Most of the cameos work, but a couple are distracting. When Bono shows up as author/drug guru/cult leader Dr. Robert, it’s a bit too obvious a casting choice and it’s hard to forget it’s Bono.
Those rough edges matter very little, though, because this is a thoroughly enjoyable movie. It’s one of those movies that really does make you laugh and cry, and it hits nerves everywhere else on the emotional spectrum. If you aren’t a purist who scoffs at the idea of actors channeling John, Paul and George, you should at least enjoy the music. The renditions here manage to fit the movie’s concept but remain true to the original spirit of the tunes.
In my opinion, it’s the best musical to come along for a while. "Chicago" and "Moulin Rouge" were impressive in many ways, but they both seemed like concerted efforts to "remake" the musical genre. "Across the Universe" is much more focused on its characters, story and its spectacular imagery, which serves as a sampler of ’60s pop art.
Years from now, we may also look back on this as a movie that launched careers. We’ve known for years now that Wood is headed for greatness (if boyfriend Marilyn Manson doesn’t break her), but Sturgess (who appears in three films packed with A-list stars during the next year), Carpio and Luther are all stars in the making.
"Across the Universe" also reminds us that not all film musicals have to come from Broadway. It was clearly written for the screen and could never be as effective on a stage. It’s a unique cinematic experience, and it’s when you feel you’ve not merely watched but experienced a film that the movies demonstrate how powerful they can be.