“Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see…”
What is it about the 1960s that makes liars of men, and wide-eyed, goofy romantics of us all? It’s the most misunderstood of decades to be sure, and just as certainly the most deliberately distorted, as if its storytellers had a personal stake in ensuring that the assorted marches, chants, and mini rebellions had more of an impact than reality dictated. Because let’s face it: the war so “uniting” as a symbol of evil continued to grind up young men well into the 1970s, and, if we’re keeping score, two nutty assassins changed the direction of this nation far more than the hundreds of thousands of stoned hippies with their trust fund sit-ins and incoherent rhetoric. In sum, the revolution was a failure from the opening bell, and anyone who cites that period as one of inspiration is suffering from the usual delusions that clog the arteries of the nostalgic. It is with this spirit of faux flower power that Julie Taymor brings us Across the Universe, a hip, eye-popping musical that would be unendurable were it not for the music of The Beatles, which still has the dishonor of acting as a connective thread for a story more trite than trippy. The actors sing their own songs, which is reasonable under the circumstances, but as with its predecessor in the Fab Four cinematic sweepstakes, 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (which, unlike this mess, wisely avoided undue self-importance), they fail to resonate as actual human beings with blood coursing through their veins. They are types and stock figures, nothing more, and their greatest failing is assuming that they’re speaking for anyone other than themselves.
As expected, Across the Universe is a love story, which proves yet again that when reduced to the flickering images of the silver screen, there’s nothing more grating and banal that two people making eyes at each other. In truth, love is about the every day, the grunt work of making a lifetime of memories, good and bad alike, and the more people continue to believe it has a thing to do with the brief rumblings of passionate courtship, the less likely we’ll see a reduction in hasty divorces or narcissistic authors on Oprah peddling the latest relationship tomes. Taymor, as evidenced by the final song, would have us think that “all we need is love,” but that assumes we accept the terms she’s established, which should be rejected outright by all but the most naïve among us. The great affair in question, between Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) and Jude (Jim Sturgess), is trying desperately to be a Rick and Ilsa for the Woodstock generation, only those two understood the stakes and actually put the world ahead of their childish desires. Here, the hill of beans is the fractured nation around them, and they hop and skip about with all the wonder of people who have no fucking clue what‘s going on. Lucy takes to the streets, gets arrested, joins a revolutionary group, and gets huffy about Jude’s “unimportant” art, but it’s all just a ruse: she’s distracting herself with trivia until she can settle down and block out the noise.
Jude is actually a lad from Liverpool, England, and he’s sailed to America to find his long-lost father, who skipped out years before after knocking up Jude’s mom during the war. Jude’s dad works as a maintenance man at Princeton, and would rather not be bothered, thanks. At least the boy didn’t ask for any money. Jude then meets Max (Joe Anderson), a snotty brat of a man who resents his privilege, and would rather be hitting golf balls from the roof of his dorm than anything so bourgeois as studying. Max is all about the now, man, and he can’t understand why he needs an education to, you know, live. He best expresses this insipid philosophy at Thanksgiving dinner with his rich parents, who are so inflexible and unreasonable that they believe a man should take advantage of the opportunities presented him. Jude is also at the dinner, and it is here that he firmly establishes his love for Lucy, Max’s sister. The scene is one of the most striking examples of the movie’s lack of imagination, as it can’t conceive of another way to express the generation gap. If we believed the movies, we’d think that every major life decision — marriage, parenthood, world travel, sloth passing as self-discovery — was announced just before Aunt Helen asked you to pass her the stuffing. Still, it is here that Max decides to run away to New York, bringing along a receptive Jude, who seems to believe that he too can set the world on fire because, unlike everyone else who’s ever lived, he has a dream.
The plucky pair find an apartment for rent, a dropout den managed by the irrepressible Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a life force so big that she not only sings her little heart out, but challenges the status quo by sleeping with black bucks. Soon, we meet JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), a fiery guitarist who channels Jimi Hendrix, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a self-involved lesbian (you don’t say?) who literally comes in through the bathroom window (har-har). As a group, one is indistinguishable from the next, and all pine for purity in love, which, if not secured, might cause one to retreat behind a locked door until won over by a sweet tune. This also leads to one of the less interesting subplots involving Sadie’s success as a singer, and her courtship by a major record label. Will she be true to her roots, or, like, sell out, man? It doesn’t matter in the slightest, of course, and the answer is as pre-ordained as the love stories that clutter up the screen. Complications arise, however, when Max is drafted into the army. Needless to say, he’s not keen on dying for Uncle Sam, but is inducted anyway, in one of the few scenes that shows a hint of wonder. Not only do the recruitment posters come alive to the sounds of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, Max is pushed through a physical that might as well result in a bath house cheek-splitting. The soldiers are square-jawed, homogenous, and strip the recruit down to his underwear with breathtaking efficiency. And then the workout! The push-ups and jumping jacks are choreographed with erotic perfection, and it only takes a few moments to see why they’re after a few good men. We all know that the military is ass-pounding by other means, but this scene is the last piece of evidence we’ll need to close the book on the debate forever.
The only other scene that had me toe-tapping was the cameo by Salma Hayek, who thankfully saw fit to play a nurse with the expected sex appeal to match. Hayek is one of the sexiest women alive for good reason, and even I’d go off to battle if I knew she’d be bedside at Walter Reed. That she’s singing the wonderful “Happiness is a Warm Gun” helps matters immensely, and keeps us from thinking how ridiculous the scene is otherwise. If you need context, Max has returned wounded from Vietnam, and he’s in recovery to receive an injection of painkillers. I guess. Here, as elsewhere, the film is so disjointed and random that while we realize Taymor’s visual gifts, we resent her for not caring about anything else. I’m not saying she alone should be held accountable for having nothing new to say about war or the trials of the home front, but every time a new song started (and there’s very little actual dialogue), I wondered why I wasn’t at home with my CD collection. It also hit me that despite the group’s later immersion in the psychedelic drug world, they never failed to understand what made music catchy. Sure, they’d slip in a particularly clever line now and again, but on the whole, their post-Revolver lyrics were utter nonsense. In many ways, then, their staying power is impossible to define, but I defy anyone to resist their charms. And maybe that’s what Taymor understood about their work, how inextricable it is from that era, and how they were, in fact, the soundtrack of our lives. It’s safe to say that many a couple first met to their music, or fell in love, and can even point to specific memories using the band’s catalog. It’s just as likely that the same could be said of Celine Dion or Barry Manilow, but I’ll leave that for the realists. Taymor’s vision is of the heart, not the head. And to prove it, she adds a cringe-worthy cameo by Bono, as if any of us had forgotten that this was a vanity production through and through.
And yet, there’s no escaping the revisionism; the myth-making and bombast that can’t let go of a dream so deferred it’s now forever buried. The bad guys won, and given the token opposition, the kids never stood a chance. Young boys went to college to get laid, joined peacenik organizations for exactly the same reason, and even went so far as to get their skulls smashed in to prove how worthy they were in the sheets. I’m not sure a single one of the layabouts actually believed in anything, and it continues to frustrate that we look to them for strength in our own troubled time. Max, Jude, Lucy, Prudence, and the lot are just a bunch of dumb kids way out of their league, spouting pieties they couldn’t possibly understand, with little to guide them save the notion that there’s nothing at all hypocritical about cursing your parents immediately after cashing their checks. All of this doesn’t exactly mesh with the upbeat tunes of a monster super group, but at least it would have been a passable excuse to sit still for 131 minutes. All you need is love? In the movies, it seems, we need everything but.