The Age of the Movie Musical… (Across the Universe DVD)

May 4, 2008 at 9:00 pm | Posted in DVD, movies | 1 Comment

Max: Why is it always what will I do? What will he do? Oh my god, what will he do! Do, do, do, do, do. Why isn’t the issue here who I am?
Uncle Teddy: Because, Maxwell, what you do defines who you are.
Max: No, Uncle Teddy. Who you are defines what you do. Right, Jude?
Jude: [awkward] … Well, surely it’s not what you do, but the, uh… the way that you do it.

Across the Universe
DVD Wednesday – April 30, 2008

A friend recently lent me a copy of Across the Universe on DVD, and by thus becoming the first request for an Organized Confusion review!

Before going further, we must begin with a brief history of the movie musical (or at least my experience of it). My background in theatre and the visual arts originated at a very young age, as well as my taste not only for music, but for artfully done covers of familiar and rare songs. Well versed in the musical turned movie, I grew up singing along with Disney (as most adults my age have) in addition reciting the full songbooks of Annie, Oliver and the Wizard of Oz. Later on through the brilliance of Jim Henson’s Muppets, I learned to appreciate fun re-imaginations of jazz pop standards. Though Broadway being captured on film dates back to the origins of movie-making, it seemed for a while (from around Saturday Night Fever on) musicals had been given a bad rap. In 2002, Chicago changed everything. Suddenly, the vision of Broadway could once again translate to modern day film techniques and captivate an audience like never before.

The rock musical, however, has always been treated as if it is a different sort of animal. Beginning with Godspell, Hair and the Who’s Tommy, the objective of these efforts were to satisfy a niche created by the collaboration of the rock and roll world with the storytellers of film. These stories addressed controversy, world issues, hypocrisy, and global conflict that coincided either literally or metaphorically with the state of the world at the present time of the composers and of the audience. Showing the grittier side to life in order to juxtapose every Broadway cliche of grand gesturing, fabulous production numbers and “happily ever after.” But really, isn’t that what most rock and roll does?

Rounding to the subject at hand, the most significant attribute of Across the Universe is this: its storyline was constructed entirely from songs written by The Beatles. According to the writer/director Julie Taymor (also famous for the Lion King on Broadway), she used over 30 songs as the basis for an original script that would span across events from 1963 to 1969. In addition to the full catalog of songs used, the characters names and many other references to Beatles lyrics and song namesakes are made throughout the film, making an exciting Easter-egg hunt for even the most hard-core fans. Even the sequence pictured below is a homage to a Rolling Stone cover for which John Lennon and Yoko Ono once posed.

At its core remains the love story of Lucy and Jude, which is gracefully intertwined with the turbulent years of 1960s anti-war movement, the struggle for free speech and civil rights, mind exploration and rock and roll! Events in the movie are derived from actual 1960s events, such as the Vietnam War and the subsequent student protest at Columbia University. In the film, those 7 years are compressed in two years. A combination of live action and animation, the foundation of the story lies within the full renditions of classic Beatles’ tunes that undeniably defined that era in time. (Source: IMDB)

In 1963, a Liverpoolian dock worker named Jude (Jim Sturgess) travels to America to find his estranged father, leaving his mother and girlfriend behind. In America, Jude befriends a preppy underachiever named Max. Soon after, Jude falls in love with Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), who unfortunately lost her boyfriend in the Vietnam War. The two boys run away to New York and bunk up with Sadie (modeled after Janis Joplin) and many misfits, including JoJo (modeled after Jimi Hendrix) and Prudence, a fun-loving but masochistically closeted lesbian. When Max is drafted to the Vietnam War, they all become involved in peace activism. When Jude (the artist) and Lucy (the activist) disagree on how protest action should be taken, they are violently split apart during a student protest gone awry. Once deported, Jude nevers forgets his love and one day, goes back to America to reunite with Lucy. The plot is summarized in even greater detail here.

I had this whole thing about cover songs I wanted to include, but I see that I have run on. Just check out the podcast Coverville if you ever want to hear rare and fantastic covers (The Beatles have been featured quite a few times). And just for fun, here’s another reviewer’s hilarious take:

Cinematic Intelligence Agency – “Oh, right. Across the Universe is like Rent for Baby Boomers with a little Moulin Rouge thrown in. The score is almost all Beatles songs woven into a tale of the radical Sixties, with protest movements, the Vietnam War, free sex, acid trips, bohemian lifestyles and so-on… Enjoy.”

Enough with the history lesson… Fact is, I don’t have much to say about this film (hardy har). But seriously, its well-crafted and beautifully done. The vibrant and clever use of the songs moved the plot along smoothly. Even in the psychedelic sections, I still felt the story moved. The performances all around were exceptional, particularly that of Evan Rachel Wood, whom for some unknown reason I was not expecting to be as great as she was. (I recommend the Deluxe 2 CD Soundtrack. It’s worth it!) Cinematography was amazing, clearly influenced by the director’s experience and unique vision. On the whole, an immensely enjoyable movie musical from an avid fan!

RATING: *****/5 (Newest member of my DVD collection)
Recommendation: If you are into musicals, you probably already own it. If not, definitely worth seeing!

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  1. While not a complete success, this was an amazingly ambitious concept and for the most part it was pulled off brilliantly. Strangely, a few of my less favorite Beatle songs were covered beautifully while some of my favorites did not fare so well. “I want to Hold Your Hand” was breathtaking and a genius reinterpretation of the song. “Hey Jude” didn’t have the same oomph as the original, and “All you Need is Love”‘s definitive cover remains the version in the film Love Actually. I have to say after seeing Jude here it was weird having him play an Asian MIT honors student getting caught up in a gambling con in “21”. And his voice here reminded me of Ewan McGregor’s various singing roles (not a bad thing).


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