Director Julie Taymor doesn't just pay tribute to the music of the Beatles in her slick screen musical Across the Universe; she offers built-in games you can play along with. Across the Universe not only presents covers of more than 30 songs by the Fab Four, but crafts character names, incidents and even props based on the band's mythos. For instance, Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) are the young lovers who provide a loose structure to the plot, and so, perforce, versions of "Hey Jude" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" play before the closing credits end.
Consequently, whenever anyone arrives or anything happens, you anticipate the Beatles reference that accompanies it. At one point, a young woman comes in – through the bathroom window, of course. Is it Penny Lane? Polythene Pam? "I'm Prudence," she says. D'oh!
Across the Universe could have been a debacle on par with the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band movie, were it not for Taymor's unabashed affection for the Beatles and the decade they defined – she loves them, yeah, yeah, yeah. At first the film's irony-free musical numbers and polished vision of the 1960s isn't quite convincing. Then Jude, a Liverpudlian dock worker in America, meets young Lucy and croons, "I've Just Seen a Face," in a bowling alley. With bobby-soxers sliding up and down the lanes, Across the Universe achieves a kind of giddy exuberance that carries through most of the film. Taymor especially grooves on New York; when JoJo (Martin Luther), a Jimi Hendrix-esque guitarist, arrives in the city, Joe Cocker growls a sinister version of "Come Together."
Apart from brief appearances by marquee names such as Bono, dropping by for a trippy, neato version of "I Am the Walrus," Across the Universe's cast members are largely unknowns, but they mostly prove to be appealing singers. Perhaps we're moved as much by our associations with the famous songs as their use in the film, but it's hard to resist the attractive young performers when they break into soft, vulnerable renditions of, say, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" or "If I Fell."
Across the Universe is also as much a delight for the eyes as the ears. Taymor crafted The Lion King on Broadway and previously directed such visual feasts as Titus and Frida. With cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (A Very Long Engagement), she presents possibly 2007's most beautifully photographed film. Sure, the American suburbs look a little too clean, but other imagery fascinates, such as a black-and-white montage of crashing waves, anti-war protests and newspaper headlines, accompanied by "Helter Skelter" by Dana Fuchs (channeling Janis Joplin).
Taymor tries to cover so much material that, not surprisingly, the ideas don't always hang together. She nods at the fissures in the 1960s peace movement, and Jude and Lucy's separate commitments to art and radical politics threaten to drive them apart. Other contradictions go unexplored. "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" presents a nightmarish critique of morphine addiction among Vietnam veterans, which doesn't quite fit the earlier scenes' apparent endorsement of turning on and tuning in.
Many film critics have already proved too cool for school in reviewing Across the Universe's unembarrassed love letter to the Beatles and their era. Admittedly, the film achieves a kind of breakthrough, crafting exactly the kind of psychedelic rock movie filmmakers struggled to make until well into the 1970s (such as the Who's Tommy, Frank Zappa's 200 Motels and the Monkees' Head). To borrow, inappropriately, the titles from a couple of Paul McCartney's post-Beatles tunes, maybe I'm amazed that Across the Universe succeeds as well as it does, both despite and because of Taymor's affection for the silly love songs.