Tuesday, September 11, 2007
TIFF 2007: ACROSS THE UNIVERSE
Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, T.V. Carpio
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007; USA)
D: Julie Taymor
Ever have a particularly strong memory play out in your head while you were listening to a cherished song on your mp3 player? You know the routine: the song isn't necessarily about you or your particular fragment of history, but nonetheless there's the movie unspooling in your mind with it's own soundtrack, if only for a few minutes.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, the latest film from renowned stage director turned film director Julie Taymor seems to be built almost entirely on the effortless ability of virtually any song in the back catalogue of The Beatles to evoke a certain time, a certain place, a certain frame of mind in virtually any listener. Taymor chooses these moments wisely, if rather obviously: they're pretty much the cultural touchstones that have all but replaced actual history in the minds of recent generations, in no small part becauce they've formed the backbone of nearly every Big American Movie about "the sixties" to come down the pike. As such, they're cliches, but set to the music of The Beatles, they're magic, and besides, cliches are what works best in any good musical. Like most of the recent crop of stage musicals based on pop repertoires (Abba, Rod Stewart, Queen, Billy Joel), the story here would be a dreadfully thin, left-of-center oversimplification without them.
The film's much-touted musical/fantasy sequences are fuel for daydreams, as one would expect from director of TITUS and director/designer of Broadway's LION KING refit, but many of the songs that frame them were never intended to forward a narrative, and they'd more than likely stop the plot cold if it weren't for Taymor's dazzling visuals completing the character arcs within these sequences more effectively than her unquestionably talented cast of singers, who look more 60s-as-we-remember-it than 60s-as-it-really-was, and often need only be present in a scene surrounded by the director's dreamy phantasmagoria and singing a typically evocative (but non-narrative) tune for us the audience to grasp their evolution.
Of course, without the music, there's about as much plot here as you'd find in any stage musical based on any pop act's back catalogue (paging Abba!), and the plot is this: idealistic early 60's goody-goodies become late-60's cynics, burnouts, protestors and veterans, full stop. That old chestnut has pretty much turned up in countless major movies about "the sixties" made in the last 20 years, but the timeless quality of the music keeps us from ever caring that Taymor and 69-year old writing duo Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais (THE COMMITMENTS, STILL CRAZY, umm...NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN) are just running down a checklist of important signifiers of the decade, and coating each with a gorgeous new lacquer.
Taymor's cast of actor/singers (Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Martin Luther and Dana Fuchs, the latter two both debuting here as Joplin and Hendrix refurbs respectively) is impressive across the board—as are the numerous guest stars, including Bono, Joe Cocker and Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite, but as an avowed fan of Hong Kong cinema and Cantonese pop music, I'll give special props to T.V. Carpio as the bisexual Prudence (bad with men, yearns for the ladies). Carpio's mom is famous Hong Kong diva Teresa Carpio, and it's obvious T.V. has inherited her mother's pipes, particularly during her opening rendition of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" a yearning ode to lesbian love.
This is a director's picture all the way, and one very much worthy of the big screen experience. The ground it covers may feel well worn, perhaps a bit pat, but Taymor and her team of designers and effects engineers dress it up in a such a beautiful new wardrobe, it'd be a pity to not see it writ large, while appreciating its artistic intensity rather than its philosphical/political underpinnings, because the latter are, naturally, better suited to the history books.