In 2007, Columbia Pictures released the psychedelic Across the Universe, using 33 songs by The Beatles to form a story of young bohemians living in New York during the Vietnam War era.
Liverpool dockworker Jude (Jim Sturgess) heads to the US in search of his American father, where he becomes friends with Princeton dropout Max (Joe Anderson) and Max’s sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).
Max and Jude move to New York, sharing a flat with Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a lesbian runaway from Ohio; Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a Janis Joplin-like soul singer; and the Jimi Hendrix-like Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), who is fleeing the race riots in Detroit. When Lucy’s boyfriend is killed in Vietnam, she also moves to New York, where she and Jude fall in love.
The film is in a near-constant state of song — there are only 30 minutes of spoken dialogue – ending with the cast uniting in a rooftop performance of “All You Need is Love”. This mirrors The Beatles’ own final performance on the rooftop of the Apple Corps building in London in 1969.
The movie was blasted for its saccharine, hippy-dippy, sanitised depictions of the 60s. Critics called it commercialised fodder for bourgeois audiences who lacked any real engagement with the politics of the period – but I think the film actually asks something more complex of its audience.
A star director, a critical flop
Director Julie Taymor is most well known for her stage musical The Lion King (1997), for which she became the first woman to win the Tony Award for best direction of a musical. While she has mostly worked in theatre and opera, her films before Across the Universe included Titus (1999) and Frida (2002).
In the early 2000s, musicals based on popular songbooks experienced renewed popularity on stage and screen, and shows like American Idol (2002–), where contestants regularly sing 60s and 70s songs, became major hits.
The combination of a Beatles soundtrack and a star director should therefore have been a formula for a hit. But even with its popular soundtrack and Taymor’s credentials, Across The Universe did not replicate the success of other jukebox movie musicals of the decade like Moulin Rouge! (2001) or Mamma Mia! (2008).
The film was a total flop at the box office, making just US$29.6 million (A$41.8 million) against a production budget of US$70.8 million (A$99.9 million). It was slammed by critics.
Time Out described Across the Universe as “often so embarrassing to watch that you’ll be checking over your shoulder to check that no one’s looking.”
Stephen Holden from the New York Times called it “unadulterated white, middle-class baby boomer nostalgia”.
But these sentiments miss the beauty and the artistry of Taymor’s reinvention of the music and the period.
Our personal connection to pop music
Particularly interesting about Across the Universe is the way it activates a nostalgic longing for the counterculture of the 1960s through an absence of The Beatles – it is not a biopic about them, nor do they appear in the film.
Taymor uses The Beatles as a recognisable language. The characters take ownership of the songs’ sentiments, using popular music in the way ordinary people do all the time.
While Mamma Mia! completely decoupled ABBA’s songs from their origin, Across The Universe involves the audience in remembering The Beatles’ music, deploying these memories to make sense of the film and its reworking of the 1960s.
Jude and Max bond over their shared rejection of society and become involved in a free-wheeling group of artists; Jo-Jo, dejected after his brother is killed by the National Guard, joins Sadie in creating experimental music; Prudence runs away from home as she struggles with her sexuality.
All along, the Beatles’ songs allow the audience insight into young characters who struggle with identity, expression and emotional development. With glorious artistic direction and enthusiastic choreography, Taymor reworks the famous lyrics for new characters and a new narrative.
In “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, the originally erotic song lyrics are sung by a frightening Uncle Sam during Max’s drafting appointment. Uncle Sam reaches out from his poster and drags Max into an aggressive medical examination that becomes a dance sequence with an army sergeant.
The song ends with Max and the fresh recruits carrying a giant Statue of Liberty through the Vietnamese jungle as they sing “she’s so heavy”.
This number resembles a trippy music video, relying on Taymor’s distinctive mix of theatrics, animation and puppetry. An originally sexy song becomes a frightening commentary on the senseless war in Vietnam.
When Max returns, he sings “Happiness is a Warm Gun” in a hospital ward with other injured soldiers. He hallucinates a vision of a beautiful nurse (Salma Hayek) who multiplies, administering morphine to the patients. The melancholy and nonsensical nature of the first verse is presented as Max’s incoherent ramblings to Lucy.
Across the Universe understands the ways a reworked cover version can be used as personal expression. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is sung by the closeted Prudence as she pines after a fellow cheerleader.
A once cheerful upbeat pop song about a cutesy love interest turns into a slow lament of lost love.
Taymor says she set out to reimagine the film musical by harnessing the power of music videos as an alternative to traditional production numbers. The film successfully combined the film musical and the music video years before Glee (2009-15) used the same format when gay cheerleaders sang to each other.
Across the Universe was dismissed for its cliched pastiche of the 1960s. But if you consider the way the film re-purposed the music for a new 60s without the Beatles, Taymor reinvigorated both the film genre and the music we thought we knew.