ACROSS THE UNIVERSE directed by Julie Taymor, written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, with Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood and Joe Anderson. A Sony Pictures release. 133 minutes. Opens Friday (September 14). Rating: NN
So what is Julie Taymor trying to do with this pocket history of the 60s from the perspective of two middle-class white kids and their working-class English friend, scored entirely with Beatles songs performed by the cast in surreal settings that occasionally include Taymor's trademark giant puppets?
Damned if I know.
On the positive side, if she had to pick a single band to sum up a 10-month in the late 60s, at least she didn't pick the Strawberry Alarm Clock. On the negative side, these treatments of Dear Prudence, Hey Jude and Strawberry Fields Forever made me want to remove all the Beatles songs from my iPod or at least all the post-Sgt. Pepper songs.
Also on the negative side, the 60s are notoriously difficult to do right, and Taymor's extravagant art and costume design proves it. It's the classic mistake of having everything look like the period. What I mean is, everyone in the 60s didn't wear designer funky threads that made them look as if they were at a Hendrix album cover shoot. People just wore stuff. The Band's defiantly plain jackets and jeans were just as 60s as Mary Quant and paisley scarves.
Anyone doing costumes for a hippie-era picture should look at Alice's Restaurant, which was made in 1969.
Taymor and her writers, Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement, seem to have gone through a 60s inventory: anti-Vietnam demonstration, check. Protestors beaten by cops, check. Vietnam stock footage, check. Wildly painted school bus full of stoned hippies, check. Draft induction scene, check. Most 60s movies made after the fact are just Hair with better music.
On the positive side, there are great cameos by Joe Cocker and Taymor's Frida star, Salma Hayek. The cast can sing decently enough, and Taymor is relentlessly visually inventive.
On the negative side, the look of the film is relentlessly visually incoherent, from Peter Max-tinged psychedelia to grainy "documentary"-style footage. The possible argument is that "the 60s were an incoherent jumble of images." Most likely, Taymor had a lot of ideas and didn't worry if the film held together from moment to moment.
Finally, I know it was a long decade, but does that mean Across The Universe had to run two and a quarter hours?
I'm not sure I ever want to see it again, but if there's a director's commentary on the DVD, I'll grab it. I'd really like to hear her explain this film.