The Beatles are huge. They're so huge that you see their influence and popularity all over the place, even though half of them are dead and they've been broken up for more than forty years. But if you just watched movies all the time, you could be forgiven for not knowing about them: original recordings of their songs cost so much to license that they're almost never present in movies. That's why it was such a shock in 2007, when Julie Taymor directed a jukebox musical romance featuring covers of songs by the Beatles. Almost a quarter of the $45 000 000 budget was spent licensing just the compositions of the songs (no original recordings). It was an impressively ambitious undertaking -- but was the expense worth it?
Across the Universe seems to be a divisive film. It's almost got a perfect 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, indicating that about half of the film critics' reviews collected there were positive, the other half negative. I really can't blame them; Across the Universe is a movie with some really great elements, and some really bad elements. The deciding factors, I suppose, are what elements stand out more in your mind, and how much you like the Beatles. The Beatles, of course, being the whole gimmick the film hinges itself upon. The film is a musical featuring thirty-one covers of classic Beatles songs, and there's no denying that, had this not been the case, it wouldn't have been anywhere close to being such a big deal.
The plot involves Jim Sturgess as Jude, a young man from Liverpool who illegally moves to America to see his estranged father. While doing this, he runs into Max (Joe Anderson), who introduces him to rich college life -- knocking golf balls through windows, running away from people, going to pubs, singing about true love, and smoking pot. This, of course, turns Jude and Max into fast friends, so Max invites him over to his mansion for Thanksgiving. There, Jude meets his love interest, Max's sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). Max drops out of college and decides to go bohemian in New York with Jude, moving in with the aspiring singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs), her guitarist Jojo (Martin Luther), and yet-another-Beatles-reference Prudence (T.V. Carpio). Soon thereafter, Max is drafted into the Vietnam War, and the movie follows the hippies into a long drug-laden anti-war message, with Jude as the tortured vaguely-apolitical artist who just wants to be with Lucy.
Obviously none of the Beatles songs in the film were written with this plot in mind, so it's all working backwards from lyrics written almost fifty years ago. With that in mind, I think it does an incredibly good job. Yeah, it doesn't always make a lot of sense, but that's more the writing than anything. The actual plot does make sense, it just sort of gets lost under all the music. Watch the movie a second time if you don't understand it the first; trust me, there are going to be things you missed. There are only a few songs that really seem forced, I think. Most of the music is incorporated very well into the story, and the fact that it's often only tangentially related to the movie kind of makes thematic sense -- this is, after all, a trippy movie about the sixties.
Cinematography is gorgeous overall. The dance numbers all seem very well choreographed to me, not that I know anything about dancing. The singing is very good, doing admirable justice to the original songs while still changing them enough to befit different voices (women, most obviously). Special mention goes to Sturgess's hair, which beats Mia Wasikowska's Alice in Wonderland style for the My Favourite Hair award. (Seriously, I'm drooling on my keyboard over here.)
Here's a little rundown of the songs, since they're so important:
Girl: Strong choice to open the movie on. It functions like the chorus in a classic play, summarizing some of the key plot points of the movie. Very effective.
Hold Me Tight: This is just used to introduce Lucy early, before she's met Jude in-story. For some reason the soundtrack disc excludes the bass that's in the movie, which makes the song a lot more like the original -- and thus, a lot less interesting. If you're going to cover a song, make it different, otherwise why cover it at all?
All My Loving: Ironically used by Jude to console his British girlfriend. The fact that he breaks all the promises in this song makes him 1) an asshole, and 2) an honest portrayal of long-distance relationships. Zing!
I Want to Hold Your Hand: Sung by a woman despite the "I want to be your man" line, which gets turned into a joke about heteronormative relationship values being applied to homosexual relationships. (I might be reading too much into that.) It's not especially important to the movie, but it's still a pretty decent musical number.
With a Little Help From My Friends: Kind of a lame cover, but used quite well in the film to show Jude and Max bonding. Drugs are absent from the movie until this song, when they suddenly appear two seconds before the relevant line in the song -- am I only one who finds that hilarious?
It Won't Be Long: Lucy's equivalent to Jude's All My Loving, but with less blatant lies. Fairly bland.
I've Just Seen a Face: I like this cover way more than the original Beatles song, which had sort of a country feel to it. I wish it were a bit longer in the movie, but oh well. It's really catchy and highlights Jim Sturgess's amazing singing talent (as if the rest of the music didn't already do that).
Let It Be: Pretty sure I'm the only person in the world who doesn't like this song. The original is boring pretentious shit and this version is no different.
Come Together: The lyrics have nothing to do with anything, but what did you expect from a song with stuff like "He got monkey finger, he shoot Coca-Cola"? The cover is pretty good and is used in the movie to introduce Jojo as a soulful musician -- for that purpose, it does a great job. I'm still waiting for someone to use this song for a sex scene, though.
Why Don't We Do It in the Road?: Used mostly as background music in a pub that Jude and Lucy go to. Nothing to really say.
If I Fell: Again, nothing to really say. It's just Lucy falling in love with Jude.
I Want You (She's So Heavy): Not an especially great cover, but used amazingly in the movie. "I want you" refers as much to lust as it does to the military Uncle Sam posters. "She's so heavy" shows the soldiers carrying the Statue of Liberty. There has never been a less subtle anti-war message, but that's what makes it so great. Your mileage may vary on the music video; I love it, but I can see why it would be unpopular. The only complaint I have is that I wanted more of that famous guitar riff in the song.
Dear Prudence: Nothing to say again. It's a pretty good cover, but not really relevant to the plot at all.
I Am the Walrus: Sung by Bono as a shameless expy of Ken Kesey, while driving the gang across the country in his psychedelic van. Everyone is on LSD by this point (seriously), so the lyrics actually kind of make sense. Bono's character is irrelevant and just used as an excuse to show off the hippies; I would have preferred it if the movie had come with an excuse to show the Vietnam War instead, but at least this song is good.
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!: Absolutely terrible cover of a song that wasn't really that great to begin with. Makes no sense whatsoever in the movie. Bad in every possible way.
Because: More irrelevant stuff from the LSD trip. This and Mr. Kite should have been cut from the movie entirely.
Something: The cover isn't nearly as good as the original, but at least we're done with the LSD trip by this point in the movie. I don't know why we need yet another song explaining how and why Jude loves Lucy, but this is the right place to put it, right before their relationship starts getting turbulent. Good musical number overall.
Oh! Darling: Sadie and Jojo play this song on-stage. It's pretty good.
Strawberry Fields Forever: I've always liked this song, but this cover is even better. This is without a doubt the best song in the whole movie. Jude sings it while designing a strawberry logo for Sadie's band, intercut with Max in the war singing with him. The strawberries are used as a metaphor for hearts and grenades, with the juice (the blood) being related to both of them. I'm not normally a big fan of the "true art is angsty" tone that it has, but it really does work here. It's hard to explain without seeing the movie, but suffice to say: this one is incredible.
Revolution: Another great song, sung during a fight scene with no trippy effects added in post -- very effective. I think Jim Sturgess could stand to sound a bit more angry, but oh well. The Chairman Mao line is just as clever as always.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps: Just used to show Jojo going solo with his music. A decent song. Not much to say.
Across the Universe: Very emotional, about on par with the original. I was expecting this to be a big song, given that the film is named after it, but it sort of just gets glanced over. It doesn't even end properly, as it gets mixed into the beginning of the next song.
Helter Skelter: Way worse than the original, and used quite badly in the film. It gets mixed into the ending of Across the Universe (the song) and just comes across as really dissonant and anticlimactic for a scene that's probably supposed to be the climax. The lyrics are used entirely as a metaphor for chaos; the actual Helter Skelter slide doesn't appear in the movie.
Happiness Is a Warm Gun: Reinterpreted really effectively to be about a character's morphine addiction. I'm not a fan of the ridiculous dancing in the movie, though.
Blackbird: The lyrics are completely irrelevant as far as I know, but it's still an emotional song that's used effectively to show someone's sadness.
Hey Jude: It takes a long time to get to Jude's song, but it's worth it. The song is exciting and uplifting after all the sad/angry songs that lead up to it. If the original still gets stuck in your head, this one will too. Icing on the cake: the lyrics make perfect sense in the film. I'm going to guess it was one of the songs the plot was specifically built around.
Don't Let Me Down: Not a lot to say. This one's mostly in the background, just to set up the last song.
All You Need Is Love: I've honestly never really understood why everyone likes this song so much. It's not bad, but it's not that special either -- the Beatles have definitely made better songs. Still, its use in this movie is pretty strong and finishes the story on a high note. Jim Sturgess injects a lot of emotion into the first few verses before the others come in, which really helps.
Across the Universe is a movie with a great context and a lot of subtext, but very little actual text. It's an emotional film that can make you feel something if you let it. It's just not the kind of movie you can really quote to your friends. I recall the first time I saw the trailer for Across the Universe in theatres, my friend Robin yelled "What the fuck?" across the room. That about sums it up.