‘Across the Universe’ delivers message of love through musical reincarnations

Paul Goebel

When I went to see “Across the Universe” I had seen only one teaser some months before and didn’t know too much about the film, other than that it appeared to be a 1960s period piece with Beatles music. As the curtain went up, in a very few moments it was obvious that it was a musical. It also hit me that the music was ONLY from the Beatles.

“Universe” tells a tale of three people who ultimately connect in New York in the latter part of the decade. Jude, a shipyard worker from Liverpool, England, on a quest to find his G.I. dad, meets Lucy, the all-American girl, through her Princeton fraternity brother Max. Lucy goes from small-town prom queen to anti-war organizer while Jude and Max lead the “hippie” life in the Village. A family grows up around the three, with cosmic mother Sadie the blues singer as matriarch of the crash pad. Visual and character references to Beatles songs and the spirits within them will delight viewers who know the lads’ discography. Bono does one particularly interesting portrayal. If you see the film, try and guess who he is. One hint: He wrote a book whose film version won a Best Picture Oscar in the ’70s.

In a technical sense the movie is a real trip, featuring lots of ambient lighting, locations in Liverpool and New York and a soundtrack by famous and not-so-famous performers. Costuming is dead-on for the times, with peasant blouses, Edwardian velour jackets and tie-dye galore. An appearance by a Merry Pranksters-esque bus, crowds of student protesters and trippy solarized video scenes give the film an I-am-there feeling.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel masterfully frames and paints the settings with an ample palette, using everything from candlelight to bright sunlight and police spot beams. The film captures the mood and vibe of the time and uses that to deliver the message, “All You Need is Love.” The music, performed by everyone from a gospel choir to Joe Cocker crooning on a street corner, more than does justice to the tunes. Animation mixed with weirdly-costumed characters makes us ride happily along for the tour.

Writers Julie Taymor, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have woven together landmark events from the era with intimate personal dramas to create a magical folktale. Scenes in Liverpool, including at the Cavern Club, ground the story’s musical roots from the start. The juxtaposition of white dinner jackets and ratted hairdos at Lucy’s prom night embodies the world that Jude lands smack into. This is middle America on the edge of volcanic change, about to erupt. Sadie’s lover and lead guitar player Jo Jo reflects on the story like he’s in a Hendrix haze. Actual news footage from student riots and firefights in Vietnam makes this a gripping and sometimes heartbreaking tale.

As someone that danced to the Beatles and lost friends to the war and drugs, “Universe” made me laugh, cry and rejoice that the Fab Four’s music lives on today. That someone made their music the basis for such a great musical speaks loudly for the era, the band and a generation.