Musicals on film are often a hit or miss. Some belong on Broadway, while others like Across The Universe (2007) portray an era both accurately and artistically that is too often forgotten. The story follows Jude (Jim Sturgess) from Liverpool to New York City. Jude goes to America to find his father and instead finds himself amongst an eclectic group of friends trying to survive through the counterculture and anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. Jude’s life story alludes to John Lennon, one of the four Beatles, which the music in the movie comes from, as both Jude and John Lennon came to New York City from Liverpool and followed an artistic career. John Lennon, however, was not deported like Jude at the end of the movie.
The 30 songs chosen for Across The Universe covers events from 1963 to 1969, but is condensed into a two year period for the film. The movie alludes to people and celebrities that the Beatles either had some form of relationship with or stars that rose around the same time the movie takes place. For instance, Sadie (Dana Fuchs) represents Janis Joplin, which can be seen through her drinking habits and heard through her rough singing voice. The scene where Jude uses strawberries for an art piece parallels Stuart Sutcliffe, once a bassist for the Beatles. Jude creates a splatter-paint portrait of a strawberry, a Jackson Pollock-like style, which Stuart was also heavily influenced by in his own art. The bus in the scene with Dr. Robert (Bono) is the same bus the Beatles used on their Magical Mystery Tour. It’s also very similar to the bus Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters drove. At the party before the cast gets on the bus they can be seen drinking “electric” kool-aid referencing Tom Wolfe’s novel, Electric Kool-aid Acid Test.
The director, Julie Taymor, did well by referencing accurate events and places. For instance, there was a violent student protest in front of Columbia University in the Sixties and an explosion that occurred in a New York townhouse on West 11th Street due to an organization called “Weather Underground”. The last scene where Sadie and the Po Boys are singing on the roof top is referenced to the Beatles concert on a rooftop in London where the police stopped them during the song, “Let It Be”. Cafe Huh?, the club where Sadie and Jimi Hendrix sang in the movie was the same club in Greenwhich Village, called Cafe wha?
Along with an authentic portrayal of the era, artistry comes forward in the film through the blending of dialogue and music transitions. Although the Beatles music can be listened to on loop, the music video portion of the movie doesn’t take over the rest of the screenplay as it often does in other musicals. The music videos are more or less used to cover exposition and montage within the screenplay. During the use of “Let It Be”, the scene covers Daniel’s (Spencer Liff) death and his funeral as well as the funeral of little boy in the war who first started singing the song. This was a simple set up to show that war was bigger and affected more people than just the few characters in the movie. One of the best uses of transition in Across the Universe is the scene where Max Carrigan (Joe Anderson), Lucy’s (Evan Rachel Wood) brother, goes off to war. The song, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” plays in the background. As Max reports to his official he sees the poster of Big Ben singing “I want you, I want you so bad.” He is then placed on a conveyor belt, denoting him to one of thousands of soldiers portrayed like G.I. Joes. The music video ends with Prudence (T.V. Carpio) sitting outside the apartment window admiring Sadie and the scene is back to the life of Jude and his eclectic friends.
What could have been a terrible portrayal of the Beatles music, turned out to be a fully thought out portrait of the Sixties. Across The Universe starts out in a simple fashion by looking into Jude’s eyes as the camera zooms in. The camera does the same thing in the end when we see Lucy standing on the opposite rooftop, ending the movie in a relatively similar way. This loop allows the audience to tie up any loose ends and have a sense of completion. Across The Universe is a nicely wrapped present of artistry and authenticity.