Across the Universe (2007)
Director: Julie Taymor
Screenwriter: Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais
Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, T.V. Carpio, Martin Luther McCoy
‘The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand’ – Bob Dylan, “Murder Most Foul” (2020)
2020 marked fifty years since the release of The Beatles’ final album “Let It Be” and their subsequent break-up in 1970. In 2007, visionary theatre and film director, Julie Taymor, paid tribute to the mythology that has come to surround the world that John, Paul, George and Ringo created for us in her audacious musical Across the Universe, a magical, epic Beatles fairy tale. The Beatles songbook itself prompts a kaleidoscopic universe of characters and places, many of which are given a nod to in Taymor’s film… enter Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard), accompanied by his eerie entourage of bouncing Blue Meanies.
Set in the 1960s, Across the Universe is a story about young love, political activism and a loss of innocence. Masterfully interwoven by the music of The Beatles, it charts the turbulent transition from the idyllic summer of love to the radical anti-war movement. In the eye of the storm lies Liverpudlian dock worker Jude (Jim Sturgess), and American student-come-activist Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), who struggle to stay together amidst the growing turmoil of a changing world.
Amplifying the iconography of the 60s, Taymor conjures a musical-fantasy depiction of the era. At times, it’s a joyous carnival of neon bowling alleys, psychedelic circuses and dreamy underwater dances, and at others it’s a near brush with the apocalypse as violence and war explode onto the screen. In this exhilarating tonal clash, Taymor encapsulates the essence of The Beatles’ music: balancing messages of peace and love against rueful criticism of injustice and abuse of power.
The musical arrangements in the film are executed with enough originality that there’s no need to compare to the originals. Taymor’s decision to cast (at the time) unknown actors in the leads heightened this, as the actors perform the songs with such raw authenticity that the music always feels as though it’s evoked organically through the story, “as though the characters were speaking to you” (Taymor, 2007). Moreover, these fresh renditions offer striking new perspectives on some timeless songs.
Played over Dana Fuchs’ fiery cover of “Helter Skelter”, a hellish opening montage ensues: images of anti-war demonstrations and riot police are dissolved over newspaper headlines and crashing waves, swallowing up protestors in a terrifying premonition of the future: the death of a dream. “Strawberry Fields” is a lament against the Vietnam War, filled with nightmarish cross-cuts between bleeding strawberries and hammering gunfire. “I Want You” becomes an imposing recruitment chant, sung by Uncle Sam himself, springing alive from his poster as young soldiers trek through a Vietnam jungle with the Statue of Liberty on their backs, “She’s so heavy…”. Finally, “Let It Be”, is performed by the incomparable Carol Woods and a spine-chilling gospel choir, mourning the death of a young boy killed in the Detroit Riots. This sequence felt particularly poignant, echoing the grief sparked in the wake of George Floyd’s death last summer, a humbling and painful reminder of how little we’ve actually progressed in fifty years.
Ultimately, over a decade after its original release, Across the Universe remains a testament to the transcending power that underlies The Beatles’ work: celebrating the continued relevance of the sentiments promoted in their music for over half a century. It’s a film that strikingly parallels the unrest in our world today yet overall remains eternally life-affirming and compelling: a hidden gem turned cult classic that offers some respite from the winter blues and also some much needed hope and reassurance.
Written by Angel Lloyd
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