Come together for ‘Across the Universe’

Because you want a ticket to ride on this magical mystery tour.

by Kara Nesvig

>”Oh, I’ll tell you something I think you’ll understand, when I say that something’s ‘I wanna hold your hand!’ “

It’s pretty likely you know those lyrics instantly; you’ve probably heard that swinging Beatles’ classic a thousand times if you’ve heard it once. But have you had the pleasure of hearing it revamped as a sweetly sung, wistful ballad of lesbian longing? Probably not, right? That would never cross your mind, but it’s a cheerleader-centered scene that will change your musical interpretation forever. This, my friend, is the magic of Julie Taymor’s Fab Four-centered musical “Across the Universe.” It fashions a fresh and fantastic alternate landscape for these oh-so-familiar tunes and lends you new eyes with which to catch a glimpse. In the words of the immortal John Lennon: Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.

“Across the Universe”

Directed by: Julie Taymor
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson
Rated: PG-13
Showing at: Area Theaters

People are ridiculously loyal to the music of the Beatles, and the creation of a musical entirely dependent on their song catalog is a seriously ambitious undertaking. A visionary in her own right, director Taymor relies on the power of that music to pull viewers in, taking these timeless works of pop music art and manipulating them to suit her needs and those of the story.

The film begins with delicious innocence; “It Won’t Be Long” illustrates the banalities of high school life and “All My Loving” stresses the difficulty of leaving the one you adore, while “With a Little Help from My Friends” is a frat boy’s joyous night of debauchery out on the town. However, the sweetness and light of those early years is quickly left behind and the rawness of the real world rears its head. “Let it Be” completely breaks your heart as sung by a young black boy in the thick of the Detroit race riots and again when it is reprised soulfully by a full-on gospel choir at his funeral.

“I am the Walrus,” Arguably, the most psychedelic Beatles’ tune, is taken like a drop of acid along with Bono’s Dr. Robert, a jive-talking California-cool hippie-dippie in the vein of Ken Kesey. The colors are startlingly brilliant and the scene pulsates, swirling with life; it’s a wild, whirling hallucination and the viewer is always along for the ride.

Taymor’s storytelling devices are infinitely clever, especially her use of ultrasexy, guitar-heavy “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” and its reimagination as a draft recruiter’s dirge. (Recruits grumble and moan, “She’s so heavy” while dragging the Statue of Liberty through jungle swamps of Vietnam.) “Come Together” morphs into a sort of streetwalker’s paradise, vividly reconstructing the uglier, more dangerous side of the peace and love ’60s with Joe Cocker as a rambling, drug-addled member of the homeless, preaching the lyrics from a street corner filled with prostitutes and pimps.

Even the characters themselves are sly Beatles references: Jude, Lucy, Max (who is often accompanied by a silver hammer – blink and you’ll miss it), Sadie, JoJo and Prudence (who comes in through the bathroom window) are just a few of the nods to the genius of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

There’s certainly a story to be told, and it’s a story we’ve all heard before: Boy moves to America, meets a girl, relocates to New York City, and becomes part of the spiderweb of art, love, drugs, war and revolution. Often the plot lapses into predictability, but the strength of these musical masterpieces prevents it from falling flat. When a white wall covered with dripping, bleeding strawberries is set against red-tinged Vietnam battle carnage and “Strawberry Fields Forever” keens in the background, one is unable to deny that this picture is powerful.

Amid all the chaos, though, at the center of the film is the tender love story between Jim Sturgess’ Liverpudlian artist, Jude, and Evan Rachel Wood’s naïve, upper-class Lucy, who quickly becomes embroiled in the anti-Vietnam movement.

Taymor incorporates such Beatles’ classics as George Harrison’s sweet, sincere ode “Something” and the simply lovely “If I Fell” to demonstrate the depth of their feelings. Certain scenes involving the two are so steeped in utter romanticism that you want to squirm uncomfortably in your seat, but before you know it the movie has stolen your heart. Taymor deftly handles the viewer’s emotions, allowing silence to speak in moments where words and song simply cannot, but the music is the centerpiece of the film, and rightfully so.

“Music’s the only thing that makes sense anymore,” says Jude, and it’s a statement that, even today, rings of complete and utter truth. Though our world will keep turning and things will continue evolving and changing with each passing day, “Across the Universe” stands as a testament to remind us that really, all you need is love.