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'Universe' finds faith in Beatles

Julie Taymor's vivid, vivacious rock opera puts references here, there and everywhere.

September 14, 2007|Jessica Reaves | Chicago Tribune

It's the oldest story in the world: Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, girl joins radical student organization hellbent on ending the Vietnam War, boy's passion devolves into paranoia, boy returns to work in a Liverpool shipyard. Months pass before they simultaneously arrive at a wholly unoriginal yet heartwarming conclusion: All You Need, it turns out, Is Love.

We've just given away the major plot points of "Across the Universe," Julie Taymor's uncharacteristically chipper rock opera, but plot is hardly the point here. Music -- the Beatles' music -- lies at the heart of this film; the iconic songs, sung by the film's energetic, talented cast, propel the characters through the upheavals of the U.S. in the late 1960s. Although her movie is certainly unique, Taymor clearly owes much to Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge."

"Universe" is also an intensely visual experience, and that's where Taymor excels. Although she directed 2002's "Frida" and 1999's "Titus," she's best known as the force behind the Tony-winning Broadway production of "The Lion King," which introduced the masses to her signature costume designs.

Anyone who's seen "Lion King" and marveled at both the fluidity of the animals' movements and the coldness of their expressions is familiar with Taymor's peculiar blend of sensuality and brutalism. "Across the Universe" displays both elements with equal fervor; a tender performance of "If I Fell" is closely followed by an explosive, ingeniously staged iteration of "I Want You" set in a U.S. Army recruitment office, complete with masked soldiers sending inductees down a human assembly line.

The film's young stars include Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess as Lucy and Jude, the lovers whose affair takes them (and us) from the relative innocence of the mid-1960s through the decade's darker second half. And yes, their names, like almost every character's, are linked to Beatles hits.

The filmmakers' apparent desire to foreshadow every single song occasionally borders on parody -- Jude, an artist, spends a lot of time with strawberries; his best friends include a very sexy Sadie and a loner named Prudence, who enjoys entering apartments via the bathroom window. That said, once you give in to the absurdity of a mustachioed Bono as Ken Kesey/Timothy Leary singing "I Am the Walrus" and overlook the cliched bacchanal in New York's Greenwich Village, you just might find yourself happily trying to spot the next ditty on the horizon.

The same philosophy might apply to the movie in general: If you can get past its relatively minor failings (Taymor reportedly prevailed in an editing-booth battle with Revolution Studios, ensuring that the movie is at least 20 minutes too long, and the tone borders on didactic), it's hard not to be seduced by the big heart of this chaotic, colorful movie. And if you're a Beatles fan who's not offended by people taking serious liberties with the arrangements of your favorite songs, the unrepentantly exuberant and seriously tuneful "Across the Universe" is pretty much a sure thing.


"Across the Universe." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some drug content, nudity, sexuality, violence and language. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes. Pacific's ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue), Hollywood, (323) 464-4226; the Landmark, 10850 W. Pico Blvd. (at Westwood Blvd.), West L.A. (310) 281-8233; and Pacific's Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, L.A., (323) 692-0829.

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