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Published: Friday, 10/12/2007

Movie review: Across the Universe *

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Help!

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Conscience comes to me, speaking words of wisdom don t fell a tree. Don t waste the pulp. Don t waste the words. Don t chew up that valuable newspaper real estate on director/imagineer/braveheart Julie Taymor s wonder-inspiring train wreck of a musical, Across the Universe, which opens today. And yet, we have a genuine marvel here, a vast, opulent Shangri-La, unintentionally built in the name of what happens when talent and artistic ambition run into excess and lousy planning.

Say you want a revolution?

Well, I say I want to hold your hand, and walk you through the valley of the shadow of the jukebox musical; it colonized Broadway with Mama Mia and Movin Out and every other production that bullies a legendary artist s songs into a shakily constructed story line. The Great White Way is awash with them, and now the idea is headed for the multiplex; Universe is that very first volley, and my guess is for every moviegoer who hates it, one will love it.

You read the news today?

Oh, boy oh, dear lord.

Love is not all you need.

Turns out, taste helps.

Restraint is handy, too.

Just ask the Beatles.

They have endured, of course. But it has been no thanks to themselves and their spotty solo careers and ubiquity, and no thanks to the endless attempts to resuscitate them in the 35 or so years since "Let It Be," their last album. In fact, they have not only endured, but they have prospered, despite deaths and taxes and legalities. The Beatles, Taymor is saying, and not wrongly, have become the cultural air we breath, a musical genome project that began in the early 1960s and concluded in 1970 and continues to stamp our DNA. But surmounting Taymor s Across the Universe which tells a rather simple story about a boy who sees a face, he can t forget the time or place where they just met, she s just the girl for him, and he wants all the world to see will be tough. She s so heavy.

If you found all those references to Beatles songs ponderous, well, I ve got a film for you.

Taymor, who gracefully relocated The Lion King to Broadway and made Frida with visual guts and a cold heart, shoehorns, refashions, essentially bludgeons three dozen Beatles classics into a shape resembling no less than the social, musical, and political upheaval and expanse of the 60s itself. How does she do this? She does it by putting the songs of the Beatles in the mouths of the characters, and fixing every inch of the movie with Beatles Detail.

What is Beatles Detail?

Beatles Detail means every character in a song makes an appearance, stanzas are enacted in short, every slogan and cultural shift of the 1960s is strained through a reading of the Beatles so literal, I audibly groaned in the theater, and groaned, then laughed and laughed. It s as if we had an Elvis biopic and it was serious but he owned a hound dog and reminded everyone not to step on his blue suede you get the idea. Oddly, Taymor doesn t.

Or perhaps, too much.

The story turns on a Liverpool dock worker named Jude (Jim Sturgess); he leaves for America, where he falls in love with a girl named Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), who has a brother named Maxwell they can t give him a silver hammer, could they, I wondered, but yes, they could. And Max leaves for Vietnam and Jude and Lucy move into Greenwich Village with a dear girl from Dayton named Prudence she comes in through the bathroom window, but of course, she does.

And I haven t even gotten to the multiple Joe Cockers the guy himself, pulling a Nutty Professor and acting against himself, in multiple roles. Or Bono, in a Ken Kesey-Merry Pranksters wig and oval psychedelic spectacles singing "I Am the Walrus," attempting an American accent. (He plays, groooan, Dr. Roberts.) Of course, the plot is not the point, as it rarely is in a musical; some of Taymor s more lunatic concepts walk a fine line between ingenious and ludicrous that could know no plot I m thinking of the military induction sequence set to "I Want You" and segueing, as the song does, into "She s So Heavy," only with Max, now a soldier, carrying the Statue of Liberty ... into Vietnam.

Oh, yes, really.

On my way out of the screening last summer, I overheard one critic saying that it s the kind of thing that would turn a generation off the Beatles. But that s wrong. It s the kind of thing that would turn a generation off the 60s. Bite-size Beatles portions and visual excess would not be hard to take for a generation weaned on High School Musical and Wicked and Moulin Rouge. Personally, I could care less about the liberties taken with Beatles tunes (for an example, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" becomes a ballad). No, its Taymor s reductive, humorless approach to the 60s that bugs, doing neither the band nor the era the favors she believes she s doing.

For instance, say you want to use the Beatles to tell a story of how innocence led to radicalization then to love. The chronology of the music is not a minor point. But the songs are jumbled here, and this may sound like nitpicking, but you can t explain the chaos of "Helter Skelter" or the sad melancholy of "Let It Be" without first touching on the hopefulness of "All You Need is Love" and patience of "Dear Prudence." The Beatles, their evolution, their exhausted collapse did, in fact, mirror the 60s, but to arrive at a tidy bow is a betrayal of why this film even exists. Even they saw, by the time they were done, love was not all you needed. Coo-coo-ca-choo.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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