[Screen It]

(2007) (Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood) (PG-13)

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Musical: Various people come together in New York City where they must deal with the social and political issues of the 1960s, all scored to Beatles songs.
It's the 1960s and Jude (JIM STURGESS) is a British dockworker who's decided to travel to America to track down the biological father he's never known. His search leads him to Princeton where he finds his dad is a maintenance worker at the college where he ends up meeting Max (JOE ANDERSON), a spoiled mischief-maker whose sister, Lucy (EVAN RACHEL WOOD), has just seen her boyfriend, Daniel (SPENCER LIFF), head off to Vietnam.

When Max has a falling out with his father, he and Jude end up moving to New York where they rent a room from Sadie (DANA FUCHS), a Janis Joplin type singer who wows the crowds with her amazing voice. New to her band and apartment is guitarist JoJo (MARTIN LUTHER), while former cheerleader Prudence (T.V. CARPIO) has also moved in.

After Daniel's death, Lucy then arrives, and she and Jude become an item. But when Max receives his draft notice and war protests begin to grow in the city, the lives of them and the others are changed in ways they can't imagine.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Considering that their last concert was in 1966, released their final album in 1969, and then disbanded shortly thereafter, it's amazing how influential The Beatles still are, all these years later. From their compilation of number one hits, "1," outselling contemporary artists a few years back to Cirque du Soleil using their newly remixed songs for their performance arts based show, "Love," Beatlemania doesn't seem ready to give up the ghost just yet.

That's further demonstrated by former cinematographer turned director Julie Taymor utilizing their memorable and familiar songs in her latest work, "Across the Universe." Something of a kissing cousin to the Cirque show, the film arrives in the form of a musical where the Fab Four's songs have been reimagined and reinterpreted to examine the turbulent 1960s as a metaphor for what's occurring in today's world (where war and racial issues still exist).

Rather than legendary producer George Martin remixing the original songs, however, Taymor has her cast sing them, albeit in new and sometimes highly imaginative and even moving compositions. If anything, the effort, which is something of a mixed bag in terms of a complete or satisfying movie, shows just how brilliant the group's songwriting was and still is, with Taymor and "The Commitments" writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais eliciting yet even more interpretations of the famous tunes and their well-known lyrics.

As I've stated before, I'm not a huge fan of many a musical simply because I don't really care for characters suddenly breaking into song for no realistic reason. Of course, the less realistic the movie (such as "Little Shop of Horrors") the easier it is to accept that narrative and music form. But with this one initially seeming like it was going to play it straight, I was less than thrilled when it immediately starts off with Jude (Jim Sturgess) sitting on a beach singing directly to the camera.

But it doesn't take Taymor long to have fun with the traditional form in reinterpreting the Beatles' songs as accompanied by her trademark, highly imaginative and innovative choreography (she did the same a few years back with the Broadway version of "The Lion King"). Some of the numbers are positively brilliant, such as "I Want You" becoming an assembly line, military induction number, or a young black boy sitting on the curb, singing "Let it Be" as '60s era racial chaos erupts all around him.

Others, mainly referring to the drug trip related ones (including Eddie Izzard doing a mostly spoken version of "Mr. Kite" to psychedelic effects) are less successful, and after a while, the film feels like you're watching a music video channel that's presenting a hit and miss array of such arrangements.

Of course, the music helps one get through those valleys, but the uneven issue is only exacerbated by the fact that the underlying plot and characters really aren't anything terribly special, let alone engaging. The story is boilerplate in terms of dealing with the issues of the day with nothing new or insightful regarding the war protests that stand stage center, forcing the rest off to the sides or into the background.

Beatles fans, however, should be in Apple heaven (as long as they don't mind the song alterations or others singing them), for Taymor and company have filled and structured the film with all things Beatle. Beyond Jude, characters are named Lucy, Prudence, JoJo and such, various lines from songs are used as straight dialogue, and historical moments in the group's lore are recreated here (including their famous rooftop "concert" that resulted in the police showing up to quiet them). Other '60s era icons are present as well, including Dana Fuchs doing a mean Janis Joplin and Martin Luther decidedly channeling Hendrix.

All of that makes it fun for those who will get all of the references, and some individual moments are brilliantly conceived and executed. I only wish that what essentially turns out to be a bunch of imaginative music videos came together into a more cohesive movie whole. More of an interesting cinematic exercise than a completely satisfying movie experience, "Across the Universe" proves that one needs more than a love of all things Beatles to create a film whose sum is equal to or greater than its individual parts. The film rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed September 4, 2007 / Posted September 14, 2007

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