I'm not a fan of musicals. So many of them are so damned giddy, and take for granted the contrivance that at any given moment someone is going to go from simple conversation to aria in no time flat...and hopefully not flat! And for me, a musical depends on the ability of the libretto to carry the narrative along cleverly, rather than stopping the show--which given the term "show-stopper" apparently is thought of as a good thing.
So a musical made of Lennon-McCartney (and George and Ringo) songs? That's pretty strong material! And God knows we need another Beatles musical since the film of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (featuring the BeeGees and Peter Frampton) was done so damned well (unfortunately there is no HTML code for "sarcasm" that reads).
Now I'm one of those people who thinks that Julie Taymor is an interesting director--one of those that swings for the fences and misses disastrously as much as she hits. I also liked "Moulin Rouge" (directed by Baz Luhrmann) which as this movie does, takes fragments of songs to build a narrative, which to some rock-devotees must seem like sacrilige. That's fine, though it struggles mightily to build a story with characters like Jojo ("Get Back"), Jude ("Hey,..."), Lucy ("in the Sky with..."), Prudence ("Dear.."), Sadie ("Sexy..."), and Max ("well's Silver Hammer").
"Moulin Rouge" worked because its fast pace and florid design hid the slimness of the plot. "Across.." is just as thin. Dick Clement and Ian LeFresnais have checked off all the lowest-common denominator elements that chant "60's" to an audience unfamiliar with it--VietNam war, race riots, psychedelia, rock n' roll, protesting--you know, the highlights. But where Luhrmann kept "Rouge" from dragging, Taymor does whole set-pieces of songs and when they end, the movie stops dead--wait a couple of beats--and the next song intro begins. While some of the songs make a nice plot-point with dramatic weight given to the lyrics, a lot of the songs just reiterate where we know the movie's already going, and all one can do is sit back and enjoy the music that you already know the lyrics to--no surprises.
How is the music? Nothing tops the originals, but the work that's done with these songs is impressive, and sometimes there are a few surprises. During the opening innocent songs, there's a sequence that's a slow version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," sung by a wistful cheerleader sitting in the bleachers to the object of her affections--only a careful camera move reveals it's not the hunky quarterback--it's another cheerleader! Taymor then cuts to a slowed down, dreamy shot of the singer, lost in her obsession, walking through the football field, barely missing being blitzed by a practice going on all around her. It's a wierdly effective funny shot that tells you everything you want to know. After a dual funeral with a choir-sung "Let It Be," a guitarist decides to move to New York to the tune of "Come Together..." He wanders down the train station stairs, where at the bottom a street-person is singing the nonsense lyrics...and it's Joe Cocker! That guest appearance plays like gang-busters, less so are Bono mugging incessantly through a version of "I am the Walrus," and Eddie Izzard making mince-meat of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," the main songs in a protracted psychedelic road-trip (which only brought back bad flashbacks of "Magical Mystery Tour"). Taymor is much more successful with an elaborately surreal army recruitment segment ("I Want You"/"She's So Heavy") and a bizarre VA hospital sequence to the song of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" (with a cameo by nurse Salma Hayek).
But it's all paper-thin, to the point where any parallels to the protest of that war, and the seeming acceptance of the Iraq War only barely register. If the film-makers are trying to stir hearts and minds they've blown the opportunity. And although there are some good sequences and the performances are game, the result is lame.
"Across the Universe" is a cable-watcher