For those who recognise the name, Julie Taymor is synonymous with bright, striking and innovative visual spectaculars. A fan of masks, large puppets and creating eye-catching images, Taymor’s work is always memorable, as anyone who has seen the stage musical The Lion King would have to agree. But in 2007 her Beatles musical Across the Universe was largely ignored and, when it wasn’t, was treated to adjectives like “embarrassing”, “airless”, and “flat”. However, the cinematic “crimes” Taymor is accused of almost all fall away when Across the Universe is respected as a film going back to the classic musical tradition.
Though Disney do keep producing musicals regularly, and ones that prove popular, as Frozen has shown, musicals aimed at adults are few and far between. When they are released, they aren’t allowed to contain any unjustified singing and dancing. In Chicago, the musical numbers are permitted because that’s how Roxie views the world; in Moulin Rouge! they are writing a musical; and in Once the characters are musicians. Remember in Funny Face how Fred Astaire was playing a photographer, Kay Thompson a magazine editor and Audrey Hepburn a bookseller? The only reason they sang and danced was because they were starring in a musical. Across the Universe is going back to that tradition but using Taymor’s avant-garde aesthetic, it’s innovative. So when critics called Across the Universe unrealistic, it seems to just be calling a spade a spade: of course it’s not realistic, it’s a musical. A musical captures intense feelings that can best be expressed in song. Rarely has someone actually sung George Harrison’s ‘Something’ to their significant other, but plenty often have people felt that wonder and awe for the person they love above everyone else. Though we are watching real people acting, musicals aren’t as representational as they seem to be treated.
This is important to bear in mind when criticising Taymor’s clichéd view of the sixties. It is undeniable that Across the Universe offers an incredibly token view of the sixties; here you can meet your best friend, get a flat in New York with a Janis Joplin-style singer, get a new flatmate because she climbed up through your fire escape and then run away with some spiritual “doctor” on a four-song LSD trip. It is meant to be microcosmic, it is meant to be intense and it is fiction. Ordinarily we are on the lookout for subtle hints of irony, foreshadowing and allusions. Across the Universe is no Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but nor was it trying to be. If your film has a scene in which newly conscripted young men carry the Statue of Liberty through the Vietnamese jungle while singing ‘She’s So Heavy’, you were not aiming for subtlety and thus should not be judged against that standard expectation. It is wild, experimental and fun; an appropriate thing for a film inspired by The Beatles. Taymor does not use film because it can be subtle and delicate; she uses it because it can be noisy and large.
Across the Universe challenges what we have come to understand as great laudable cinema because it is not refined or classy – it is experimental like the work of an A-level art student portfolio with its bleeding strawberries, montage sequences and less-than-subtle symbolism. But far from being catastrophic it works because The Beatles inspired it. The Beatles were wild, experimental and challenging, and Across the Universe embodies that. Taymor incorporates The Beatles’ essence so completely into her film. Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a dry-witted working class lad from Liverpool with artistic talent, an amalgam of John, Paul, George and Ringo. The scenes which Jude and Max (Joe Anderson) share have the energy of A Hard Day’s Night. Indeed the flow of the plot and the moments of humour are reminiscent of The Beatles’ films in general. Additionally, the musical predominantly moves through The Beatles’ back catalogue chronologically, letting the characters mature and develop with the music.
Taymor was also criticised for her covers of The Beatles’ music. It is undeniable that the songs are sleeker and more “Hollywood”, in terms of production value, than the originals, but this should not overshadow how well Taymor uses them to tell the story, or indeed the musicianship and vision needed to reinterpret them. ‘Strawberry Fields’ becomes an allusion to the poppy fields when sung by a scared soldier over a war montage. ‘Revolution’ moves from its teasing lo-fi tone to becoming the moment when Jude argues with a anti-war activist, and later becomes a mantra for Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) when she is in danger. Some have argued that the songs have been forced into the story, but watching the flow and ease with which the cast move from one song to another, the story and the songs meld together so organically.
If you don’t like musicals or if the idea of anyone other than Paul McCartney singing ‘All My Loving’ upsets you, don’t watch Across the Universe. For everyone else it is definitely worth a second chance. So rarely are we offered a film that is so bold; and more rarely still are we offered a new musical that is not animated. Across the Universe is deserving of a place with Moulin Rouge! and Chicago. At the very least, it deserves not to be forgotten.