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'Across the Universe' Is Still a Useless, Nostalgic Mess

Julie Taymor's Beatles-centric jukebox musical movie was considered a creative flop—and it still is.

by Patrick Lyons
Sep 26 2017, 3:11pm

Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.

Over the course of their brief-but-prolific career, the Beatles recorded and released 237 original compositions. Of those, 34 appear in Julie Taymor's Across the Universe, a 133-minute-long jukebox musical that turns ten this month. That's roughly one Beatles song every four minutes. The film does have a discernible plot, but it's secondary to the clear main goal: Cram in as many Beatles references as possible.

It's an utterly ridiculous task, attempting to graft a storyline onto a highlight reel of an expansive oeuvre. Were someone to make an Across the Universe–style mashup of Shakespeare's entire works, there might be a scene in which a small rodent runs across the screen, inexplicable except as an excuse for someone to yell, "Someone tame that shrew!"

As it is, Across the Universe names a character Max for the sole purpose of landing a throwaway joke about him murdering someone with a hammer, has its protagonist Jude (Jim Sturgess) engage with a wizened man who is (take a guess) 64 years old, and has another character (Prudence) climb into a scene via—you guessed it—the bathroom window. It's bar trivia as plot, every eye-rolling Beatles allusion you've ever seen in film condensed into one aimless hodgepodge. Are you a fan of Cameron Crowe's decision to name Almost Famous' groupie-with-a-heart-of-gold "Penny Lane"? How about that scene in Parent Trap where Lindsay Lohan and Natasha Richardson recreate the Abbey Road album cover? Or the part in Forrest Gump where Tom Hanks inspires "Imagine" by sharing shallow observations of Chinese culture with John Lennon? Look no further: Across the Universe is your magnum opus of meaningless referentiality.

Let's go back to Forrest Gump, because Across the Universe treats Beatles history exactly like Robert Zemeckis's dramedy treats late-20th century cultural and political events. Where there's a will to strip a familiar symbol, event, or piece of ephemera of its meaning in service of a film that wallops you over the head with blatant easter eggs, there's a way. Oh, you've found a way to loosely tie in Watergate/the Apple Records logo/pet rocks/Lennon and Yoko Ono's iconic nude pose/George Wallace's assassination attempt/The Beatles' rooftop concert? Well, why not?!

So, fine, this movie references the Beatles in the most unabashed, uncool ways possible. Once you get past the cheapening of a timeless legacy, that's harmless enough. But what about the meat of the actual film? Plot-wise, we're dominated by clichés: A British boy goes to America looking for an absentee dad, falls in love with an American girl, lives the Bohemian dream, briefly comes down to Earth, and then saves his relationship in climactic fashion.

What little of the script isn't dominated by Beatles allusions is littered with flimsy Britishisms ("He walked out on me mum while I was just a bun in the oven") and obnoxious winks at hippie culture (overheard during an acid trip: "Where are we going?" "We're going out of our minds!"). The film also employs a bevvy of animated, Tim Burton–style special effects that make those from aged films like 1996's James and the Giant Peach look positively futuristic.

Across the Universe falls into yet another trap when it tries to engage with the "60s." It's already overstuffed as a Beatles musical; does it really have to be a period drama, too? The movie opens with Jude's longing gaze into the ocean as it's interrupted by disembodied scenes of protest, war, and general tumult that appear within the waves. Every nod to 'Nam, the civil rights movement, or psychedelic drugs is half-baked; whenever things are getting a little too utopian, we're tossed headlong into a shot of Max in Vietnam, Detroit burning in 1967, or protesters clashing with police. In one particularly glaring example, a dreamy scene of Jude singing the title track on the subway awkwardly merges with a rendition of "Helter Skelter" that soundtracks a rally at Columbia University. Throw in a misquote of Timothy Leary's "Turn on, tune in, drop out" slogan, and the film's one black character (a guitarist named JoJo) getting dressed up like Hendrix, and it's like we're living in a high school spirit week's "'60s Day."

Ten years down the road, Across the Universe can be viewed as part of a larger contemporary spree of reimaginings of the Beatles' legacy. Three years prior, there was Danger Mouse's Grey Album, which mashed up The White Album with a cappella tracks from Jay-Z's Black Album. In 2006, Beatles producer George Martin and his son assembled new versions of 28 of the band's classics for a Cirque du Soleil show, using only other existing recordings from the band's catalog. Both of these, unlike the film, were relatively successful because of their focused reinterpretations.

On paper, Across the Universe offers the most new content, but in reality it's staler than both sample-based projects. It bites off too much of the apple, attempts to be too many things at once without offering updates, critiques, or even commentary on its source material. Nobody will ever make a definitive The Beatles: The Movie, and hopefully Across the Universe has inspired other filmmakers to stop trying. Now that would be a worthwhile legacy.

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