I went to see Julie Taymor's new film, "Across the Universe" with deliberately low expectations--as much as I love the music of the Beatles and Taymor's visually innovative style (she directed "Frida"), I'm too cynical for most musicals, and setting one to covers of the beloved songs of the Fab Four is a pretty risky thing to do. Plus, though I was too young to call the sixties my decade (I was born in 1962), I often feel like movies about the sixties view the decade from too current a lens.
So I'm delighted to report that I loved every minute of this movie. The music, set to a simple boy-meets-girl story, aims to evoke the events, mood, and meaning of the decade, and suggests why the Beatles came to be the voice of a generation. Like good covers should but rarely do, these versions of the songs made me hear them anew--I heard many of the lyrics as if for the first time, even while I was singing along in my head, and the arrangements beautifully realize the music's essential power. I actually teared up at several points--and really, it was the music that moved me, reminding me of the peculiar power of music to catch your heart unawares. Often, with the first few bars of a song, I'd catch my breath, and think "yes, this song is just right." Taymor's bold, often hallucinogenic visuals, greatly assist this effect--a choreographed basic-training scene where the robotic heads of all the drill sergeants evoke conformity; a sequence where inductees in Jockey shorts hoist the Statue of Liberty through a Vietnam battlefield; cross-cutting between Beatles clone bands at an American high school prom and in a Liverpool bar. Characters fall in love leaping and sliding down the lanes of a bowling alley, and the open-hearted experimentation of young hippies is captured in sequences running through fields and riding a psychedelic bus. Some of it is over-the-top, but I wanted to go wherever Taymor would take me. A beautiful ride.