I saw a sold-out opening night screening of "Across the Universe" last night with a group of my friends who had really been looking forward to it. Many of them were extremely disappointed, while in the critical world, Roger Ebert and the New York Times loved it. Because the film was so highly anticipated, and a number of people have asked me how I liked it, I'm writing this review in an attempt to express why the movie is so divisive. I'm not going to talk about plot, or describe any of the numbers. If you're interested in seeing the movie, they'll be more enjoyable if they're unexpected.
It's a bizarre and beautiful movie musical, almost a music video at times, that uses thirty- three of The Beatles' songs and director Julie Taymor's unique visual style to illustrate both a personal love story and the overall conflict in the sixties. The movie is incredibly original and ambitious, and therefore its failings are as dramatic as its successes. Both stem from the same source: Julie Taymor's self-indulgence. That's nothing new to her movies, "Frida" and "Titus" have the same problem, but in a movie stripped of traditional narrative, it's glaringly obvious. Some songs are impeccably chosen and staged with great creativity, but others are too obvious, or thematically forced so Taymor can cram in another song and stunning visual sequence.
For the first half of the movie, I was frequently divided. One innovative sequence would really pull me into the style, then a forced number or awkward staging would distance me again. When an obvious, recognizable number began, I was torn between a cynical impulse to roll my eyes and an almost exhilarated impulse to laugh and applaud.
"Across the Universe" is a mess. There's no denying that. It is poorly paced and badly structured, and at times its feather-light plot and contrived or obligatory numbers become tedious. But at one point, about halfway through, I decided just to go along for the ride. I delighted in every brash, bold choice, whether it worked or not. I let the poignant moments move me, whether or not I intellectually felt that they were contrived.
The Beatles' music had a huge effect on me; from the fateful day that my friend accidentally copied the first three tracks of "Revolver" onto my computer, a love affair was born. Their songs are inexorably tied to memories beautiful and horrible scattered all over my life, and as I grow older, I'm constantly discovering new, deeper resonances in their familiar refrains. Even when the context was vague or stretched, the film's reinterpreting and revealing new facets of these songs seemed to serve as a tribute to their breadth and greatness. Taymor's damning depiction of the horrors of war, and lyrical portrait of young, idealistic love are both painfully expressive and unique, and simply took my breath away. By the film's shamelessly corny close, I realized that I had just had a genuine cinematic experience. For all the movies that I watch, that's incredibly rare.
In his review in the New York Times, Stephen Holden writes, "I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person. Imperfections, however glaring, become endearing quirks once you've tumbled." I could laughingly list this movie's flaws from now till next week, but I sort of fell in love with its sheer audacity. You might not. It's extremely naïve, and thematically simple, and you could find that endearing or irritating. You may love it, or you may hate it, but you're going to feel something. This movie will not change your life; don't expect it to. But if you let your criticism fade to the background, and abandon yourself to Taymor's passionate fervor, you may have a pretty amazing experience.