Tripping 'Across the Universe,' Just a Little Clumsily With 30-odd Beatles songs, Frida director Julie Taymor tells a story about a guy named Jude, a girl named Lucy, and the helter-skelter '60s. Magical mystery tour, anyone?
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Tripping 'Across the Universe,' Just a Little Clumsily

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Tripping 'Across the Universe,' Just a Little Clumsily


Arts & Life

Tripping 'Across the Universe,' Just a Little Clumsily

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Julie Taymor, the director who created "The Lion King" on Broadway, specializes in big concepts and strange visuals. Her new movie "Across the Universe" has both. The concept is to use more than 30 Beatles songs to tell a brand new story. And the visuals? Let movie critic Bob Mondello talk about those.

BOB MONDELLO: A boy sits alone on the beach staring at the waves, then he turns to the camera and asks a question.

(Soundbite of song "Girl")

Mr. JIM STURGES (Actor): (As Jude) (Singing) Is there anybody going to listen to my story? All about the girl who came to stay?

MONDELLO: The boy is Jude, and the story he wants us to listen to is about his trip from Liverpool to the U.S., where he meets Maxwell, Jojo, Sadie, Prudence, Lovely Rita, the Amazing Mr. Kite - and of course Lucy, that girl who came to stay.

(Soundbite of song "Girl")

Mr. STURGES: (As Jude) (Singing) Ah, girl.

MONDELLO: As he thinks about Lucy, he turns back to the sea, and her face appears on the waves, along with all the helter-skelter insanity of the 1960s -riots, sit-ins, love-ins, Vietnam - all crashing together, and crashing onto the beach.

(Soundbite of song "Helter-Skelter")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide where I stop and I turn and I go for a ride till I get to the bottom and I see you again.

MONDELLO: This is what's called a jukebox musical, and this case, one that uses Beatles tunes to tell a storyline the Beatles didn't come up with. With 33 songs in the picture, there's not a lot of time for dialogue, so it's the music that has to tell the story...

(Soundbite of bowling alley)

MONDELLO: Sometimes from an unlikely locations, say, the bowling alley where Jude and Lucy go on a date.

(Soundbite of song "I've Just Seen a Face")

Mr. STURGES: (As Jude) (Singing) I've just seen a face that I can't forget the time or place where we just met...

MONDELLO: The thing is, these lyrics weren't written for this story. So the visuals have to work overtime. Sometimes things line up perfectly, as when Jude's buddy Max drops out of college - where he's apparently gotten by with a little help from his fraternity - and suddenly, Uncle Sam starts singing at him from draft-board recruitment posters.

(Soundbite of song "I Want You")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I want you. I want you so bad.

MONDELLO: Now, that's a love song, but not when it's being sung by Uncle Sam. There are times when you can feel the strain, as the pictures don't quite match up with the words. But the 1960s were a psychedelic era, so in a pinch the director can just have everybody take LSD and send them on a magical mystery bus tour, with a stoned poet spouting lyrics that pretty pointedly don't mean anything.

(Soundbite of song "I Am the Walrus")

BONO (Vocalist, U2): (Singing) I am the eggman. They are the eggman. I am the walrus.

MONDELLO: That, Bono singing, by the way, and elsewhere you'll hear Joe Cocker and British comic Eddie Izzard, as well as a couple of re-created cultural icons: Jojo played as a dead ringer for Jimi Hendrix, Sadie as Janis Joplin, all wandering from the amazing Mr. Kite's puppet-infested vaudeville act to such real events as the Detroit riots, where "Let It Be" gets sung mournfully by a boy soprano as his neighborhood gets torched.

The imagery is pretty astonishing. The director treats some of the more fantastical moments as if she were making big-screen music videos - and it's all very intelligently done. Though that can't quite obscure the fact that it's a very intelligently done kind of a silly idea. The anti-war stuff gives Across the Universe some contemporary overtones, but it's still basically Hair with better music.

And it's not as if Beatles songs weren't already being peppered, as it were, into the soundtracks of other movies set in the 1960s - precisely because we've all got our own reference points for them. Director Julie Taymor can't short-circuit that, and she can't really tell us anything we don't already know about the '60s, or about the songs.

What she can do, and what she does, is create her own little universe.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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