Review of Across The Universe
My Wife and I went back and forth on what to movie we should see this past weekend. A lot of last minute negotiating went on, we would say things like “if you see your movie this weekend, then you have to see my movies the next two weekend.” This went on for a while before we finally settled on Julie Taymor’s Across The Universe.
I accepted because it runs along similar themes that I am working on in my script. My wife liked the trailer. Looking back, the trailer is not a good indicator of how good the movie is. The trailer borrows a lot from the graphic oriented montages, which to me are the weakest elements in the film.
Director Julie Taymor is a genius with theater costumes, masks and props. If you think I am misusing this word genius, I suggest you look at her book on her work with costumes. She went on to direct the Lion King on Broadway and features such as Frida and the Oedipus Rex. I haven’t seen Frida but Oedipus Rex was a disaster. Subtlety is not a suit that Taymor possesses. So when I read that Across The Universe was structured around Beatles songs, I rolled my eyes. This ploy was either going to be painfully cheesy or emotionally powerful.
Walking into the theater, I warned my partner that the film was going to be visually striking but emotionally cold. The film’s visual sense lives up to my billing. There has not been a film in recent times that possesses such visual poetry. Taymor is clearly more adept in speaking visually than aurally. There is dialogue but most of the power and meaning is deferred to the Beatles songs. A very smart move because I believe without the songs, the film would have been decidedly stilted. The Beatles gives the film a sense of warmth and familarity. Their lyrics are ingrained in our collective psyche, in the best parts of ourselves: the idealistic, the hopeful, the communal. The film not only channels those feelings but also gives it a story thus bringing out the colors of the lyrics that I have not witnessed before.
I have heard “Revolution” so many times but I have never realized its true meaning. I just kinda went along with the song but clearly had not paid attention to what and who Lennon was attacking. Both me and my wife commented about this afterwards.
My favorite scene in the film is when T.V. Carpio sings “I want to hold your hand.” It happened early but I knew when I saw it that this was going to be my favorite scene. To explain why this was special is difficult because the magic lay between the performer and the camera / microphone. I was transfixed, I looked around and saw the same. I don’t want to hype this moment too much, see it, tell me if you feel the same way.
The first half is a classic, a great film. The second half is riddled with over-directing. The graphics play out like music videos. As matter of fact, I rolled my eyes every time the graphic department took over the reins. The spoken word all but disappears. One song leads to another. Some songs should have been deleted (excellent example: Dear Prudence). It was all too excessive, much like those times. However, I am not sure the aesthetic was meant to infer that.
All the war scenes feel silly, like high-school theater. Bombs blow, guns shoot, soldiers scream on crimson skied backdrops with dramatic footlights. It reminds me too much of the scene from Rushmore when the high school puts up a play on the war in Vietnam. The hospital scene (featuring Salma Hayek) is another clunker, the lowest point in the film.
The well casted team of actors did all they could. Music video acting can be limiting. The editor carves out a performance from the little-quirk-expression basket. A note about the editing, I wished someone had told the editor that he didn’t have to use every angle that was shot. It is perfectly ok to use a couple of shots in a scene or to stay on one shot. The audience doesn’t have a watch in its hand waiting for the next cut or a calculator on how much money is being spent. For f*ck’s sake! Taymor is as responsible in this as the editor. The scenes with longer takes work better than the faster cut ones. The film is so grand that it needed more grounding.
I am not a big fan of musicals, this coming from someone who grew up in Bollywood land. My suspense-of-disbelief gene does not cover the musicals. Sorry! This film, however, possesses the best music ever recorded. The friggin’ Beatles! I would pay money to see the songs performed over a pile of dung. So this certainly works. I plan on buying the awesome soundtrack when they decide to include all the songs and not a select few. (Bono not only appears in the film but has a couple of tracks as well.)
Overall, this film is a mini-classic. For all my complaints on Julie Taymor’s over-direction, I believe a lot of the film’s greatness would have been lost if she weren’t at the helm. She has courage beyond any other working director. Nobody else would have even entertained such ambition. She is one of the few directors who lives up to the label of “groundbreaking.”
Update: “I want to hold your hand” audio is available on Youtube!