Across the Universe

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 February, 2008, 12:00am

Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson

Director: Julie Taymor

Category: IIA

Set in the 1960s and billed as both a tribute to the Beatles' songs and the tumultuous period in which they emerged, Julie Taymor's Across the Universe ends with All You Need is Love. It's not used in the context in which it was written, however: far from being a paean to pacifist ideals, it's the call of lovelorn Jude (Jim Sturgess) as he despairs over the possibility of losing Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).

The way the song is re-imagined as a mere romantic ditty, with boy-wants-girl sentimentality crowding out the original anti-war message, sums up the place of history and politics in Across the Universe. Archive images and restaged sequences that replay events defining the US in the 1960s - the Detroit riots, the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King's death - are just backdrops to the on-off love story of Jude, a Liverpudlian docker jumping ship to a new life in America, and Lucy, a rural schoolgirl radicalised after joining her Princeton-educated, wannabe-bohemian brother Max (Joe Anderson) in New York.

As is apparent from the names of the two young lovers, Beatles references are the key to Across the Universe: Max sings Hey Jude to encourage Jude to patch things up with his sister; the boys' sexually charged, rock-singer landlord (Dana Fuchs) is named Sadie; and her band's label bears the name of a fruit, albeit a strawberry rather than an apple. These are all clever devices to keep initiated audiences busy, but such postmodern knowingness only reflects the vacuity of the proceedings.

Despite a clear attempt to draw parallels between the Vietnam war and the quagmire of US military adventurism in Iraq, the film's greatest-hits of 1960s American unrest rarely offers any 'why' about the 'what'. And the same glibness comes across in how the film is structured. After a purposeful first half-hour in which the lives of the protagonists become gradually intertwined, the characters turn out to be little more than ciphers, with the possible exceptions of Sadie and her Hendrix-esque guitarist lover Jo Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), whose explosive relationship makes them more three-dimensional.

It doesn't help that the film resembles a string of slick music videos lined up one after the other. Some - such as the reworking of I Want You as a Pink Floyd's The Wall-aping dig at the draft and squashed strawberries representing the bloody mayhem in Vietnam - are relatively accomplished, but a few are utterly disposable (Bono's cameo as a lord of psychedelia singing I Am the Walrus simply grates, as does Salma Hayek's appearance as a computer-generated dancing nurse).

The one strength of Across the Universe is its highly effective adaptation of the Beatles' canon. But that merely highlights how the film works as a simple musical experience or a nostalgia trip for Fab Four fans unable to see the band's music - and 1960s popular culture in general - in the context of the social turmoil from which it emerged. A missed opportunity all round.

Across the Universe opens today