The JOE-DOWN Reviews ‘Across the Universe’

This is an installment for a series on this blog where Joe Brown, Sports Editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle, and I have a back-and-forth review of a movie. We will take turns selecting a movie — any movie we want — and review it here. For this installment, Brown picked “Across The Universe.”

The info:

The Movie: “Across the Universe” (2007)

Starring: Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson

Director: Julie Taymor

Plot Summary: (From IMDB) The music of The Beatles and the Vietnam War form the backdrop for the romance between an upper-class American girl and a poor Liverpudlian artist.

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 53 percent

Our take:

Brown: After touching on a few action movies, including the reintroduction of “Ghostbusters,” I thought it was time to hit another musical. This isn’t new territory for the JOE-DOWN after we saw one of the most baffling movies ever in “Grease 2.”

This time, I wanted to go with “Across The Universe” for one reason: Bono singing songs of The Beatles. And knowing Froemming, this would upset him. I’m a sadist, people.

With that said, this movie did have its moments… until you remembered that you were watching a movie and not listening to an album. As we prepare to dive in, what did this movie do for you, Froemming?

Froemming: It was a weird feeling watching this because it is not a very good movie plot-wise, but I enjoyed it quite a bit because of The Beatles connection. Let me explain. If you take away all the the music of The Beatles (one of my favorite bands), the nods, the easter eggs, anything related to the Fab Four, this is basically the most generic film about the 1960s ever made. I had a weird sensation that I had seen it before, and it turns out I had when it was aired on NBC in 1999 and was called “The 60s.” And at the time I thought that was the most generic film/mini-series about the decade I had ever seen.

Brown: OK, so a few months back, I went and saw The Who at Target Center with a couple friends. And I swear, a bunch of the depressed British imagery and war-time footage that The Who had on the screen behind them was used as footage in this movie. And that cuts at the heart of one of the main problems I had with this movie: So much of it is a music video, and really just a weird music video.

But before we get into anymore tirades, let’s delve into the plot. There is (kind of) one here, after all.

So after we get some “Helter Skelter” (maybe my favorite Beatles song) with some wartime footage, we see a young mop-topped kid in Liverpool about to leave home and join the Navy. Turns out, he has no interest in joining the Navy. Instead, he jumps ship in New Jersey to find his father, who left before he was born. Turns out, dad’s a janitor at Princeton University. I think he thought he’d have a Will Hunting janitor father. Instead, his dad is probably closer to Philly’s finest/dumbest janitor, Charlie Kelly.

jude

Froemming: Yup, Jude (from “Hey Jude,” every character here is named from a character in a Beatles song) finds his father, but just so his father knows he is out there (his pop is a classic deadbeat dad). And Jude, staying on campus for whatever reason, finds a friend in Max (named after “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”), a college frat guy/hooligan who lives the college dream of being wasted all day, everyday. Max is like Van Wilder here, except he sings Ringo songs (“With A Little Help From My Friends”).

This was probably the part I started warming up to this film. I hate musicals with a fiery passion, but this one worked OK for me. We also meet Prudence (”Dear Prudence”) before this, a cheerleader who is in love with another girl on her squad (implied heavily at least) and she sings what has to be the saddest sad-sack version of “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

Brown: This is where this movie started to lose me. Sure, we go into Jude’s story as he meets his dad and becomes friends with Max. Then we get a story about Lucy (“Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds”) seeing off her high-school sweetheart who is about to be shipped off to Vietnam. OK, cool. But then we get a cheerleader thrown at us, singing by herself in the stands? It was this jump that was so sudden my neck started to cramp up. Then she starts singing her sappy version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the middle of a football practice field. And football players are flying around and hitting each other harder than “Varsity Blues” in the middle of practice. PRACTICE.

Side tangent aside, this whole thing about jumping in and out of stories is so jarring, I remember putting in my notes at the 1-hour, 13-minute mark of this movie: I still have no clue what is going on.

Froemming: I agree with you there. We get Prudence singing her song and we don’t see her again for a long time. By the time she shows up again, I was like “who the hell is that? Oh, that mopey cheerleader.”

Since Jude is from a country where the only recognized holiday is Boxing Day, Max invites him to Thanksgiving and some good old American overindulgence! But Max and his father bicker like an old married couple at the dinner table, with some random uncle character jumping in at places. Max wants to drop out of his Ivy League existence and be a bum (because this is the 60s after all.Turn on, tune in, drop out and all that jazz). Rich people can afford such luxuries I guess.

But, and this shocked me a little, we have reviewed two musicals so far, AND BOTH HAVE A BOWLING SCENE! Brown, take it away.

Brown: I’m happy I wasn’t the only one here that felt their anger rise when they started singing in the bowling alley. I’ll give the movie this: I’d much rather hear a Beatles song (I think this was “I’ve Just Seen A Face”) than “Grease 2” actors singing about bowling. And, I did get a laugh when Max slid down the bowling lane (because of course he does), only to get leveled by the back of the lane like he got hit with a Stan Hansen lariat. Obscure wrestling references for the win, folks.

Froemming: See, Jude is falling in love with Lucy. Both have significant others, but he is British and hails from the swinging Liverpool scene (including the famous Cavern Club) so he doesn’t care. But he and Max decide to head to New York, because that’s what everyone did back in the 60s.

Lucy, though, finds out her boyfriend was killed in Vietnam (this puzzled me because up to that point, I thought he was only in boot camp, because that is what the movie TOLD US).

Brown: I’ll let you get back to it, but I was confused about this, too. This movie does a bad job letting you know the scope of time. Case in point: After this, Lucy travels to New York and stays there for most of the movie. And the whole time I thought, “Wait, isn’t she supposed to be finishing high school?” Turns out she’s done with high school, but, to my recollection, this movie doesn’t let you know that. Some perspective in what’s going on timewise, besides Vietnam, would be extremely helpful.

Froemming: Well, we do get a little of that with the Detroit riots during “Let It Be,” where we are introduced to Jojo (“Get Back”) who, after a funeral, decides he, too, is moving to New York. Now, I’ve read a lot of books on the 60s and the counterculture, and the main theme of those books was everyone was heading to San Francisco. But, hey, New York it is!

Before we get back (see what I did there) to Max and Jude, I want to say my favorite part of this film is when Jojo comes to the Big Apple and Joe Cocker sings “Come Together.” I love this because a. It is a solid cover of the song and b. He plays a homeless man, a pimp and a dirty, smelly hippie during the song. Should have ended the film there, because nothing is going to top that.

Brown: I really dug Cocker’s version of “Come Together” as well. I’ll admit to being into hard rock and this hit that note for me pretty strongly.

So as Max and Jude go to New York (Greenwich Village to be exact, because Ginsburg and all), they live in an apartment run by Sadie (“Sexy Sadie”). And eventually, Prudence comes to the apartment, too, after leaving an abusive relationship. And how does she join the group? Come on, folks, what Beatles reference can we use for this? Ready? … … She came in through the bathroom window. Look, I get why there are so many Beatle references in the plot itself. But I won’t lie in saying it drove me a little crazy how heavy-handed it was.

Froemming: I agree somewhat with that. Me being the Beatles freak I am, there were tiny nods I enjoyed as well (some shots were reminiscent of the “Free As a Bird Video,” some shots had tiny winks to the “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Help!” films). But yeah, the bathroom window bugged me and it was just a reason to shoehorn in a Beatles reference for no real reason.

Brown: To help speed things up, and because plot-wise, this movie is a color-by-numbers plot with arguably the most influential music in pop culture history backing it, we have Lucy come to New York, she falls in love with Jude and Max gets his draft papers. And after they unsuccessfully try to find ways for Max to dodge the draft, we get the most terrifying musical sequence in this movie with “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” We have singing CGI Uncle Sam, and blocky soldiers who look like Joe Swanson from “Family Guy” made with Atari graphics. The whole thing was a nightmare. This isn’t the last of the musical numbers that won’t let me sleep for a week.

across-the-universe-i-want-you

Froemming: Yeah, that scene was so disturbing I thought I was having a terrible fever dream. If only Max had flat feet, he could have gotten a deferment. But, alas, his days of freedom before going overseas are numbered. We also have Jude and Lucy’s relationship blooming during all of this. Oh, and Prudence locks herself in a damn closet, just for the cast to sing “Dear Prudence” (which is related to how the actual song came about for John Lennon. A nice wink, I’ll admit).

Now comes the point of the movie I hated. Hated with the rage that turns a man’s soul black as burnt oil. Because at this point, we get Bono playing a Ken Kesey character (with Merry Prankster bus and all. Except his bus says “Beyond” instead of “Further”), but he plays it like the guy is Charles Manson. I hate you Bono. Bono can go straight to the volcanic pits of hell from which he came.

VLRiIxv

Brown: This has brought me so much joy.

Now, we get Bono (trying to sport a Lemmy mustache and failing miserably) as Dr. Robert, and he’s pretty much leading a magical mystery tour to what I assume is California while singing “I Am The Walrus.”

Now, this will sound weird, but I enjoyed this. But not for the reason the movie wanted me to. While their bus is driving through a forest, they have the footage running through what looked like an Instagram negative filter. And all I could think of was the Beastie Boys music video for “So What Cha Want.” It got a positive reaction out of me, so way to go movie.

Now, remember how freaked out I was with the army scene? Now we get introduced to Mr. Kite and really had to reevaluate my life with how unsettling this whole sequence is.

Froemming: Eddie Izzard is creepy enough on his own. I didn’t need to see him as a carnival barker howling in the darkest depths of “Dante’s Inferno” to the tune of  “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite.” This is a bad acid trip come to life on the big screen. I had nightmares from it. There are things one simply cannot unsee.

Brown: It took me a minute to figure out that it was Eddie Izzard as the carnival barker. I thought (maybe hoped?) that it was Tim Curry. That casting would have made too much sense, though.

Some more scattered plot came as Sadie tries to get signed to a record deal but has to dump her bandmates in order to make it. So we get an awkward stage rendition of “Oh! Darling,” which was more uncomfortable than when we saw The Kid performing “Darling Nikki” in “Purple Rain.”

Froemming: If you couldn’t tell, Sadie is basically Janis Joplin and Jojo is basically Jimi Hendrix in this film. Because we needed to be bashed over the head with 60s nostalgia non-stop in this movie.

Brown: It was at this point of the movie where I thought to myself that I’d enjoy myself more if I listened to The Beatles’ greatest hits, like “1,” or if there was an album with covers of The Beatles’ most influential songs. The music is entertaining and even if I don’t dig some of the renditions, it’s interesting to listen to different takes of songs instead of being straight-up covers. So much is thrown out in hopes of developing a cohesive plot that it makes the story inconsequential.

Because the Vietnam War has to be incorporated into this movie, we see Lucy (remember her?) join a protest group with a leader who may as well have been the brother of the protest leader from “Forrest Gump.” Meanwhile, Jude (remember him?) cares more about his art than the war because he’s British and is already avoiding the war. This is how we get conflict in between songs, folks.

Froemming: Because this movie is, like you said, a paint-by-numbers plot, they give the protest movement of the 60s the most generic/vague treatment I have seen on film, including “Forrest Gump.” At least “Gump” had an appearance by Abbie Hoffman.

So, Paco (the leader of the protest movement) brings a TV to Lucy and Jude’s apartment — so they can watch the war reporting! But his real reason is to flirt with Lucy. And Jude doesn’t want a TV in his office (it’s a kitchen) where he paints strawberries, which you know what is coming next. Because STRAWBERRIES!

Across_the_Universe_3lg

Brown: Don’t forget that before Jude becomes obsessed with strawberries, he is drawing apples. Because Beatles! Apple Studios! The music is enough, quit cramming every reference you can, movie. Hell, I’m shocked there wasn’t a Pete Best reference shoehorned in somewhere.

Because Jude is a jealous lover, he barges into Lucy’s work and mocks them by singing “Revolution.” All I could think of was Nikes. Thanks, Michael Jackson.

Froemming: I think there was a Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe reference at the start of the film at the Cavern Club, so every Beatles reference does make it in this film.

This film takes a very cynical look at the protest movement of the 60s, which bugged me a lot. Jude singing “Revolution” in a mocking way just rubbed me the wrong way, considering Lennon was very involved with the anti-war movement after the Beatles broke up. And then they force a Weather Underground moment when Paco and co. are blown up by a bomb they were making. But before they blow themselves up, Lucy gives a breathtakingly generic speech about how they are becoming what they are protesting against.

Brown: Lucy also leaves Jude after this outburst, we get some “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to set the mopey mood. Then while Lucy is at an anti-war demonstration at Columbia University, we get this off-putting mishmash of “Across the Universe” and “Helter Skelter” to set the stressful mood. As Lucy is getting escorted off campus by police, Jude tries to interfere and meets the wrong end of a nightstick for his troubles.

And because he never bothered to get a work visa or anything, Jude is getting deported, but not after getting one loving gesture from his estranged father, who talks to him in jail.

Oh, something we forgot to mention, Jude had a girlfriend at the beginning of the movie that he bails on. She sees Jude as he returns to Liverpool as he lies through his teeth about being happy to return. You kind of deserve this awkward exchange, bro.

across-the-universe-2

Froemming: This, again, goes back to how time works in this film. Was Jude just in the States for, like five years without a work visa or anything?  Ugh.

We also have Max back from Vietnam. He was wounded and gets a shot of morphine to the appropriate use of “Happiness Is A Warm Gun.” Then he becomes a cab driver in New York.

This movie man….I don’t know, it was rushed here at the end.

Brown: I was waiting for Max to tell Jude to refer to him as Travis Bickle for the rest of the movie.

During the “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” number, we get a cameo from Salma Hayek as the nurse. Why? Good question.

And yes, this movie rushed the ending. And because of that, I’m going to rush the ending.

Like you mentioned, we get Paco and co. killed by one of their own bombs. In Liverpool, Jude is freaked out that Lucy was killed in said explosion. But nope, she’s alive! So, Jude comes back to New York and tries to become a citizen.

Sadie and the old band (namely Jojo) are reunited and have a rooftop concert (which is a callback I really enjoyed). This was the second best rooftop concert reunion since the Be Sharps performed “Baby On Board” at Moe’s Tavern.

rooftop

Froemming: I got to say I enjoyed the cover of “Don’t Let Me Down” by Sadie and Jojo. And yes, it looks exactly like the Beatles’ rooftop concert (and the Rutles’ rooftop concert as well). But the police are having none of this nonsense with loud music blaring over the city, so they come to shut it down.

Brown: Yeah, the band gets shut down, but Jude stays on the rooftop hoping to see Lucy. And because the equipment wasn’t taken, he starts singing “All You Need Is Love,” which does sound good as a vocal-only rendition. But because we need a storybook ending and the cops are lazy, the band runs back up and plays the song with Jude singing. Did the power of music prevent the cops from doing their job all of a sudden? I was dumbfounded.

Froemming: Sadie and Prudence just needed to shout “LOVE” in the cops’ faces the first time around. Yeah, whatever.

And hey! Lucy is on another rooftop as Jude is singing. And they stare at one another. And then — the film ends.

Brown: And for our troubles, we get Bono singing “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” in the credits. How did it take this long for that song to make an appearance?

Froemming: Why wasn’t there a character named Penny Lane? Was it because “Almost Famous” stole that thunder already? The world is full of mysteries I guess.

Brown: And no Eleanor Rigby. Also, I want to know why there wasn’t an octopus with a garden. Let Ringo help, guys!

Froemming: Well, I think we need to let this review be.

Would you recommend?

Brown: I recommend getting the soundtrack to this movie. I certainly wouldn’t recommend watching the film itself. Look the idea of this being a movie is just a conduit to jump to different Beatle tracks. They have such a tapestry of beautiful and memorable songs, but they’re wasted with a plot as flimsy as tissue paper. I’ll give the movie credit for giving me some deeper cuts that I don’t usually listen to from The Beatles. Buy the albums.

Froemming: As a Beatles fan, I enjoyed watching it. Like I said earlier, if you took away all the Beatles songs and references, it is not a good film. It is good for one watch.

Here is what’s coming up for the next Joe-Down:

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