Dir: Julie Taymor USA 2007. 129mins.
The post-Chicago boom in screen musicals takes a novel twist with Across The Universe, a concept album-style love story set against the social upheavals of the 1960s and largely told through the songs of The Beatles. This ambitious Julie Taymor project veers between the soaring, goosebump romanticism of Moulin Rouge and the more awkward passages of John Turturro's little seen Romance And Cigarettes.
A starmaking performance from Jim Sturgess and some thrilling emotional highs should attract a core of devoted admirers, especially among musical fans, but how deep it can penetrate into the mainstream remains doubtful. Returns are likely to be more in the range of Rent than the blockbuster status of Hairspray.
Broadway and London's West End have become a breeding ground for musicals that weave a fictional story around the back catalogue of an iconic performer with We Will Rock You (Queen), Tonight's The Night (Rod Stewart) and Abbamania among the more successful. Across The Universe retains a sense of that theatrical conceit even as it transfers it to the big screen.
In the 1960s, Liverpudlian Jude (Jim Sturgess) bids the shipyards farewell and heads for America promising girlfriend Molly that he will 'send all my loving to you'. In America, he goes in search of his father, is befriended by Ivy league rebel Max (Joe Anderson) and falls in love with Max's sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). The two men subsequently share an apartment in New York with aspiring singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and the love story unfolds as Lucy becomes committed to the anti-war movement and Max is drafted to serve in Vietnam.
Carrying echoes of stage stalwart Blood Brothers, the joie de vivre of Hair and the anti-war sting of Oh! What A Lovely War, Across The Universe has a raucous, unruly energy in the first half. Like Hairspray, it feels as if every number if a brash showstopper.
As the magical mystery tour through the 1960s slides into the pyschedelic years, the pace varies but the film edges towards self-indulgence with appearances from Joe Cocker (Come Together), Bono (I Am The Walrus) and a very bizarre, Pythonesque number featuring Eddie Izzard.
A charismatic performance from the handsome Sturgess and the heartfelt relationship with Evan Rachel Wood's Lucy maintains the film's emotional pulse even as some of the digressions begin to test the patience. The impressive vocal performances from the leads are a further boost.
Staging numbers with flair and vigorous, eyecatching choreography (e.g. raw recruits clad only in underpants carry a giant Statue Of Liberty through a stylised evocation of the jungles of Vietnam), Julie Taymor still can't quite avoid the accusation that Across The Universe is simply a very long pop promo. There are times when it is far too obvious and corny and given the names of the main characters you sit there awaiting the inevitable use of Hey Jude and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. The surprise is that one of their friends isn't called Eleanor Rigby.
When it works, the film possesses a rare exhilaration as timeless music and pure emotion fuse in perfect harmony. When it fizzles and falters, it is merely exasperating.
Revolution Studios (US)
Team Todd (US)
Ian La Frenais
Julie Taymor (story)
Evan Rachel Wood
T V Carpio