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Across the Universe

(2007) ** 1/2 Pg-13
133 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Julie Taymor. Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Martin Luther, Dana Fuchs, Jim Sturgess, T.V. Carpio.

The "found musical" has been all the rage in recent years. ABBA became the stuff of Broadway musicals in Mamma Mia! (soon to be a major motion picture). Then there's Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story, We Will Rock You (Queen), All Shook Up (Elvis), Jersey Boys (The Four Seasons), Love, Janis (Janis Joplin), Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys), and the dance extravaganzas Movin' Out (Billy Joel) and The Times They Are A-Changin' (Bob Dylan). And those are just a sampling of a genre of bio-musicals and rock operas that's bred like the proverbial rabbit.

Perhaps the granddaddy of them all was the '70s Broadway hit Beatlemania, and it was inevitable that the Fab Four would once more be the stuff of the musical: first as the Cirque du Soleil show The Beatles LOVE and now as the monumental movie musical Across the Universe. The formidable Julie Taymor—whose background lies in stage (The Lion King) and film (Titus, Frida)—takes on the task, and Beatlemaniacs should probably count their blessings she's in charge. For all its flaws, Across the Universe handles the pop with reverent care and creative vitality.

To Taymor, "crossing the universe" is an expression of the difficulties of love, peace, the generation gap, and geographical and cultural divides. The latter issues inform the film's first full-fledged musical montage. An American high-school dance—still redolent of the picture-perfect '50s—swings to "Hold Me Tight." While Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) dances with her white-tuxedoed beau, Taymor intercuts with the Cavern Club, where a down-and-dirtier Mersey Beat version of the same song rocks Liverpudlian lasses and their leather-clad lads, including Jude (Macca lookalike Jim Sturgess).

Soon, Jude's wanderlust takes him to America, where his long-lost father is a Princeton U. janitor. There, Jude befriends collegian Max (Joe Anderson), who takes his new friend home to meet the family, including Max's sister Lucy. Before long, true love emerges between Jude and Lucy, but will the turbulent '60s allow their love to remain intact? This basic story proves to be a clothesline not only for 33 Beatles songs, but what feels like the entirety of the decade's social forces: Vietnam and the protest movement, the Detroit riots, the psychedelic drug culture, and the role of popular music.

Aside from the presence of the Beatles in the fabric of the story, screenwriters Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and Taymor (who shares a story credit with them) introduce sexy singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and African-American singer-guitarist JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), who become friends and roomies to Jude, Lucy, and Max in the Bohemian climes of Greenwich Village. In her singing voice, sartorial style, and manner, Sadie overtly evokes Janis Joplin (Fuchs played Joplin in Love, Janis) and JoJo bears a resemblance to guitar god Jimi Hendrix; ambition and career jealousies threaten their relationship.

The final member of the ensemble is Prudence (T.V. Carpio), an Ohio cheerleader introduced singing the anthemic "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as she gazes dreamily across the football field at her crush: no, not the quarterback, but another cheerleader. Prudence comes into her own in Greenwich Village, after the ensemble has "Come Together." In rock-opera fashion, the dialogue is crowded out by songs, in varying degrees of success giving voice to the characters' inner yearnings and torments.

But it's a dicey proposition to reverse-engineer a story, and Across the Universe shows the strain. By telling such a slim story, re-contextualizing the music as the thoughts of underdeveloped characters, and maximizing effects on a scale and in a style that brings to mind expensive television commercials, Taymor often makes the music seem smaller and more shallow than it is, which is certainly the opposite of her intent. The film's at its worst when shoehorning show-stopping showcases for Bono ("I Am the Walrus" as a Merry Prankster-esque Dr. Robert) and Eddie Izzard ("Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite")—I'll give Taymor Joe Cocker, who seems the man for the job of "Come Together."

If Taymor too rarely exercises restraint, there's an upside. When the film works, it works like gangbusters, with clever reinventions of the tunes (under the guidance of composer Elliot Goldenthal and music producer Teese Gohl), inventive choreography by Daniel Ezralow, and Taymor's imaginative staging. Highlights include "It Won't Be Long" and "If I Fell" (both delivered with honey-sweet sincerity by Wood), "With a Little Help From My Friends" (used to capture male bonding, college style), and "I Want You" (She's So Heavy)" (brilliantly conceptualized as a draft nightmare kicked off by an Uncle Sam poster).

As a straight-up story, Across the Universe is sort of a mess, with its primary dramatic conflict the unconvincing clash of Lucy's idealism and Jude's cynicism (everything old is new again in our 21st century warscape). The prioritization of songs simply crowds out effective drama (and don't get me started on the annoyingly cutesy dialogue quotes from the Beatles catalog—talk about overkill). But darn it all, Across the Universe is a very impressive music-video anthology, a must-see for movie buffs and Beatle fans. Bruno Delbonnel's world-class cinematography should've made Oscar's short list, and a musical with music this great can't be all bad.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 2

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 2/5/2008

Distributor: Sony Home Entertainment

Julie Taymor's films demand special editions (and coffee-table books) to delve into the scenes behind the scenes, and they usually get them. You'd better believe that Taymor + the Beatles = a deluxe home-video special edition: Sony provides extensive bonus features on a two-disc DVD set. Sony delivers a transfer that's about as good as it gets for standard DVD, though it doesn't always handle extreme colors well and suffers from subtle video noise in some backgrounds. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack does justice to the full dynamics of the film's arrangements, though the English subtitle track only selectively spells out lyrics.

The primary bonus feature is a screen-specific commentary shared with a nice rapport by Taymor and composer Elliot Goldenthal. They chat about the musical choices, to be sure, but also inspirations, character development and locations in a steadily informative track that, unfortunately, gives out at the beginning of the end credits. But what Taymor and Goldenthal don't say about the production largely coalesces in Disc Two's five extensive featurettes (with "Play All" feature), starting with making-of "Creating the Universe" (29:10). Instead of mere B-roll footage, we get auditions (by the "Let it Be" gospel soloists), cast meetings, and rehearsals (including one in which Taymor plays Lucy for Sturgess) to supplement fascinating set footage and revealing interviews with the cast and crew.

"Stars of Tomorrow" (27:08) profiles the mostly unknown but highly talented ensemble: Wood, Sturgess, Anderson, Carpio, Fuchs, and McCoy. The featurette proves their intense bonding throughout the pre-production and shooting, including dance rehearsals and a bowling play date that paved the way for the "I've Just Seen a Face" sequence. "All About the Music" (15:24) focuses on Goldenthal's contributions and strategies, along with production supervisor/music producer Teese Gohl, and we get to see fine musicians like Bernie Worrell at work. "Moving Across the Universe" (9:04) gives a too-short glimpse into the work of choreographer Daniel Ezralow, and "FX on the Universe" (6:35) allows Kyle Cooper of Prologue films to explain the origins of the animated and special-effects sequences.

Disc Two also houses eight Extended Musical Performances (also with a "Play All" feature): "Hold Me Tight" (2:56}, "Come Together" (5:39), "I Am the Walrus" (4:54), "Dear Prudence" (4:32), "Something" (3:22), "Oh! Darling" (3:55), "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" (5:07), and "Across the Universe/Helter Skelter" (5:19).

Back on Disc One you'll also find a brief deleted scene: "And I Love Her" (:59), two live alternate takes of Eddie Izzard's performance of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" (2:57 and 2:59), twelve previews (though oddly no trailer for Across the Universe), and a photo gallery comprising "On the Set" (108 photos), "Behind the Scenes" (18 photos), and "Design" (30 photos of the set, some highlighting the drawings and paintings of Don Nace). This photo gallery is advertised as a DVD-only exclusive, as opposed to the arguably preferable Blu-Ray exclusive of an art gallery of Nace's drawings for Jude.
Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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