I’m not a huge fan of Julie Taymor’s Titus, but I’ll never forget the moment when Titus’s brother discovers his niece, Titus’s daughter Lavinia, outside the city. Raped and brutalized, her tongue and hands savagely cut off, Lavinia stands atop a tree trunk with twigs protruding from the stumps of her arms and tears streaking her ash-white face: a silently weeping scarecrow against a pale blue sky. The image, paradoxically, is hauntingly beautiful—which is sort of a problem. Taymor has created a gorgeous tableau, dazzling in its aesthetic artistry, but the emotional context is muted. The sheer beauty overwhelms the horror.
That kind of visual splendor disguising emotional vacuity is a recurrent problem in Taymor’s work, on both stage and screen, and her latest film, Across the Universe, is no different. Admirably ambitious yet ultimately rather shallow, Universe is pretty but empty. I remember the set pieces vividly; the story I’ve already half forgotten.
A grand musical extravaganza set during the tumultuous 1960s, Across the Universe uses the Beatles catalog to tell the meandering story of a handful of young idealists. Pretty, innocent Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), her amiable if directionless brother Max (Joe Anderson), and their friend Jude (Jim Sturgess), a British dock worker drifting about America, settle together in New York with a pair of talented but penniless musicians, the Janis Joplin–ish Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and Jimi Hendrix–esque JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy).
You can tell from the character names alone that Across the Universe can be terribly cutesy. Jude is indeed serenaded with the song bearing his name, and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” energetically heralds the closing credits. (Oddly, sexy Sadie never gets her due, and lovely Rita, briefly introduced by dear Prudence, a minor character, is similarly unsung. I was disappointed that Miss Eleanor Rigby never even made an appearance.)
Such lyrical allusions appear constantly in Universe, adding flair to the otherwise uninspired amalgam of 1960s-era topics (Vietnam, civil rights, the draft, LSD, violent student protest, etc.). At their best, the songs provide a clever, even charming approach to the simple storyline, but the musical’s kitschiness feels tasteless in some of the weightier episodes. Using “I Want You” to portray the reach of the draft was a wincingly bad choice, and the “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” sequence, dramatizing the physical and mental anguish of injured soldiers, takes a bizarre turn toward the burlesque when Salma Hayek (Taymor’s Frida star) pops in as a hallucinated naughty nurse.
Yet other numbers are lovely. It’s hard to go wrong filming your ridiculously attractive cast in a wind-swept wheat field singing the intricate harmonies of “Because,” and the conception of “Across the Universe” is enchanting—Jude on the subway wistfully recalling simpler days and seeing them play out on the opposite train, the lilting mantra sung by a line of Hare Krishna devotees dancing down the car. In fact, that number is one of the few truly affecting sequences in the film, particularly when it crashs up against “Helter Skelter” at a student riot, the dissonant juxtaposition beautifully representing two contradictory trends of the time: the spiritual search for transcendence and the earthy, sometimes violent radicalism of government resistance.
Of course, the “Across the Universe”/”Helter Skelter” sequence ends with a brief chorus of ashen, nude Vietnamese girls—napalm victims, from the look of it—singing the last refrain of “jai guru deva om” before plunging backward, arts outstretched, into the sea. It’s not as offensive as it sounds, but it is jarring. Taymor’s gestures toward the traumas of the 1960s are simply too small, too feeble and silly, to work. I’m not sure whether this genre can carry the weight and significance she’s attempting. Moulin Rouge! successfully blended a hyperactive musical with a fairy tale, but Universe is trying to marry pop-kitsch with documentary, and the dysfunction is perhaps inevitable.
Yet I did enjoy it, on the whole. I went expecting at least to appreciate Taymor’s visual razzmatazz, but to my surprise, I enjoyed the musical performances even more. Wood, Sturgess, and Anderson have perfectly pretty, serviceable voices, but Fuchs and McCoy are obviously professional musicians, and their numbers are exhilarating. Fuchs rocks a deliciously growly, bold voice—not the slightest bit poppy—and McCoy has an old-fashioned, velvety croon. His mournful rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is quietly stirring.
Indeed, many parts of Universe work well as separate little music videos—small gems of songwriting prowess, appealing performance, and artful presentation—even though the sum is rambling and flimsy. A strong finale might have tied it together well enough, but to my dismay, Taymor instead made perhaps the worst possible song choice, underlining all that is pat and inadequate and superficial about her movie. Never mind the dead, the disfigured, and the disillusioned, the fallout of one of the darkest periods in American history. After all, “all you need is love”! Those two crazy kids are back together, and that makes everything OK.
That glib, tacked-on happy ending almost ruined my fond feelings for everything that came before it, but like I said before, the story of Universe is entirely forgettable. Never mind Jude. Never mind Lucy. Now I only recall Taymor’s underwater ballet, exploding strawberries, psychedelic circuses, hot guitar players, Bono as the walrus (!), and football players flying through the air in slow motion to the wistful strains of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” as a ballad of unrequited affection. It might not mean much in the end, but damn it’s pretty.