Monday, July 15, 2019

Julie Taymor | Across the Universe

nothing changes
by Douglas Messerli

Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (screenplay, based on a story by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais and Julie Taymor), Julie Taymor (director) Across the Universe / 2008

I have to admit, even before I begin this review, I am not a great fan of Julie Taymor. As beautiful as her giraffes, lions, and other animals might have been in The Lion King, it’s simply not my kind of theater. Her Broadway Spider Man was an absolute disaster, and her more recently presented revival of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly did not last very long.
      Her 2008 film, Across the Universe—despite the apparent approval of Paul McCartney and Yuko Ono—was my least favorite film of that year (an exaggeration of course!). Howard, my companion, loved it; I hated its ridiculous narrative circling around 34 songs of the Beatles. Seeing it for the third time again the other day, I still stand by my original assessment of it being the worst movie possible with the best score imaginable. I’m not fond of jukebox movies and stage musicals, especially when you weave a totally unbelievable tale around absolutely glorious music.
      I can’t even begin to find a way to describe the absolutely ridiculous plot of this tale. Besides it doesn’t matter. Let’s just agree that it involves a Liverpool shipyard worker, Jude (Jim Sturgess), who leaves his English girlfriend, by enlisting in the Merchant Navy and jumping ship in New Jersey to find his unknown G.I. American father before settling down in a New York City East Village enclave with a midwestern refugee, Lucy Carrigan (Evan Rachel Wood), a tough living, hopeful singer landlord, Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a slightly waspy but rebellious Max (Joe Anderson) and others, including the Detroit refugee Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), whose young brother was killed in the Detroit riots. Max becomes a taxi driver, Jude an artist, and Jo-Jo a player in Sadie’s would-be band. They’re all quite good as singers and performers, and Taymor’s photography is quite lovely.
      But the story is so improbable that, even with the Beatles’ lovely songs, the entire endeavor becomes ridiculous. Bill Irwin, Bono, Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker, and Selma Hayek all make cameo appearances, along with many others. But it’s all hokum. And the film can’t even bring together its frayed fringes.

     At moments the film tries to be a statement about the Vietnam War, at other moments a kind of Rent-like embracement of the Hippie movement. At still other times it’s pure nostalgia concerning a loss of roots, which finally gets the immigrant Jude kicked out of the country. One thing that Taymor makes crystal-clear, somewhat sadly, is just how unpolitical the Beatles’ songs essentially were.
     The emphatic singing by Jude of “Nothing’s Going to Change My World” as his beloved Lucy gets more and more involved in the political issues of the time, particularly at Columbia University, makes it quite apparent that the Beatles’ were about love and psychological interchange rather than political challenges, despite Lennon’s sweet plea (not in this film) for “imagining a better world.”
     The real issue here, as ridiculous as the story presents it, is simply “love” (“All There Is Is Love") and the film ends in a giddy rendition of  “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" instead of any sense of political conscience.

     Jude is simply a lover, not an intelligent being involved in what, at least in Taymor’s fragile imagination, are the intense political issues of the day, simply attempting to win the hand of his girl.
      Sadie and Jo-Jo entertain the entire community with their rooftop performance which the mean-tempered police try to close down. But music and love survive the day in Taymor’s confection. Pretty to imagine. Pretty to see. But absolutely empty.
      I happen to feel that this truly amazing pop band might have had far deeper convictions thatn anything this director conveys. At least I hope so. If not, bring on the giraffes! Which Taymor almost does.
      Poor Lucy “in the sky” doesn’t need her diamonds to make us realize how flimsy this film truly is.

Los Angeles, July 15, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (July 2019).

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