Review Summary: "Across The Universe" dreams big yet falls short.
Julie Taymor may have concocted one of the most ambitious, daring ideas ever to be put on film: taking the wide-ranging catalog of The Beatles and using it as the vehicle for a cinematic musical. On paper, this type of idea sounds completely outrageous. The complete alteration of classic melodies and arrangements of songs such as “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “Dear Prudence” can either be deemed as miserable failures or flashes of creative genius. The soundtrack to Taymor’s vivid wonder of a movie, "Across The Universe," displays both moments of fresh air and instances of puzzlement.
At times Taymor strikes musical gold in terms of providing a new musical direction for various songs from The Beatles. Credit must be given to the vocal performances of the actors in the film, most notably Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, T.V. Carpio, and Evan Rachel Wood. Sure, Sturgess is no Paul McCartney and Anderson is not John Lennon. However, certain performances offer a new mood to songs that typically should not be dramatically changed around. Sturgess and Anderson, behind distorted, grinding guitars, work together well to add a liveliness to tracks such as “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “With a Little Help from My Friends” previously unseen on the classic Beatle versions. Carpio’s slow-tempo rendition of one of The Beatles’ greatest hits of all-time, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” acts in a completely different light as its predecessor. The song no longer sounds happy as The Beatles had made it out to sound. Instead, Carpio is emotional, yearning to hold the hand of someone who she loves, yet does not love her back. Wood also delivers a slower, more heartfelt interpretation of a Beatles’ classic, presenting the message of Lennon’s “If I Fell” through the eyes of a woman. Whereas Lennon and McCartney harmonized along-side each other, Wood finds herself alone, contemplating whether or not to love a man that she had just recently met (Sturgess). The unique perspective is captured extremely well by Taymor in the film.
For those that are fanatics of The Beatles’ catalog, the soundtrack to “Across The Universe” may be a painful listen. There are two sides to this coin that pose a problem for Taymor’s film. On one hand some may never want the classic arrangements and melodies of these songs to be changed because they are so accustomed the versions performed by The Beatles’. On the other side, if the melodies and arrangements remain virtually untouched, but the singer is different, the songs might sound uninspired. At various points throughout the film, Taymor’s soundtrack falls into this inevitable trap.
Songs like “All My Loving” and “All You Need Is Love,” both performed by Sturgess lack inspiring vocal performances. Sturgess sounds neither like a man separated from his lover nor a man attempting to win back the affection of a woman he cast out. Instead of sounding as though he’s singing in the moment, Sturgess comes off as someone who is singing merely to get through to the next scene. Wood’s performance of the upbeat “Hold Me Tight” brings nothing truly new to the song and as a result is nothing but a lackluster track. Anderson also falls prey to the same dilemma of dullness with his interpretation of McCartney’s “Hey Jude.” At times, Taymor tries too hard to distinguish her work from that of The Beatles, plagued by her desire to be original. The transformation of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” from a song to a narrative, while no doubt unique in its approach, is outrageous in its execution, infesting itself with dizzy strings and unnecessary horns.
Ambitious risks are certainly not alien to the daring Julie Taymor. Her Broadway adaptation of Disney’s “The Lion King” surely confirms such a claim. However, by taking on a catalog such as that of The Beatles and attempting to revamp it into a musical film, Taymor’s work falls dramatically short of expectations, sounding painfully average. For casual listeners of The Beatles work, the soundtrack for “Across The Universe” may be a joyous experience. For those that adore the classic Beatles’ catalog, it may prove to be an infuriating listen.