Writing to Evaluate essay for Composition 1:
Pools of Sorrow, Waves of Joy
A film about the United States during the Vietnam War era, as a concept, seems overdone. A Vietnam-era story set to Beatles music is even more so. After all, what self-respecting ‘60s-inspired movie doesn’t have an adorable teenage cheerleader daydreaming to the tune of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” over the clichéd quarterback? The Beatles and their music helped define the decade, from the Suburban innocence of “Love Me Do” to the crazed, angry whimsy of “Helter Skelter.” But Across the Universe shows that you can, in fact, reinvent the wheel.
The plot is relatively transparent, but in an obvious, purposeful way. The first third of the film introduces us to Jude, Lucy, Maxwell, and, briefly, Prudence. All characters are, of course, named from Beatles songs. Jude, from the dingy cobbled streets of Liverpool, comes to America to find the father he never knew, and meets Max, a dissatisfied Princeton student plotting to rebel against his straight-laced parents and partying to “With a Little Help From My Friends.” A side-story shows us Prudence, our adorable teenage cheerleader wistfully and longingly singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” from the bleachers, though it slowly becomes apparent she’s singing to a fellow cheerleader. Heading home for Thanksgiving, Max brings along Jude, where he meets his friend’s beautiful sister, Lucy, a high school student pining for her military boyfriend. Given the transparency mentioned earlier, it’s easy to guess Lucy’s love does not manage to return.
After a brief argument with Max’s family, our dynamic duo travel to New York. They move into an apartment owned by a sultry singer named Sadie, who instantly brings Janis Joplin to mind and later her Hendrix-clone guitarist, JoJo. Prudence eventually joins them, as does Lucy, now jaded from the death of her boyfriend.
Around this point, the film starts its decent into trippiness. Max is required to report to a drafting center, where grotesque, dancing toy-soldier military men inspect him, and the drafted trudge through a miniaturized jungle, at once kicking through the fog of war and buckling under the weight of the Statue of Liberty. The imagery conjures fear for the men and it’s easy to imagine the weight of that fear literally crushing them.
Once back with his friends, they attend a peace rally, which gives Lucy and Max hope that the war will be over soon and slowly sucks Lucy in with the grandeur of revolution and propaganda-style speech (“Our voice is our weapon, and united we will win!”). Afterwards, Sadie takes them to a party hosted by a hippie author, Dr. Robert. Dr. Robert is a very thinly-veiled reference to Timothy Leary, and sprouts nonsense (“I Am the Walrus”) while his audience drinks LSD-spiked pink punch. Our group winds up on a psychedelic bus (“Magical Mystery Tour,” anyone?) and Dr. Robert’s drug-addled preaching leads to the insanity of Mr. Kite’s carnival, which is almost nauseatingly colorful and motion-rich.
The final third of the film is melancholy and really brings home the dissatisfaction of the age. Lucy and Jude fight over how sucked into “the cause” she’s become, while he has no cause at all, JoJo and Sadie fight over Sadie’s fame overshadowing her band’s, and Max is surrounded by bloodshed and violence. Paco, the speaker at the peace rally, quickly turns from the inspired face of the hippy revolution to an easy-to-hate, bomb-building extremist.
The acting in Across the Universe is inspired. T.V. Carpio, who plays Prudence, is a master of the exquisite longing that her character personifies. Evan Rachel Wood (Lucy) flawlessly transitions from sock-hopping school girl to frenzied revolutionary, and Joe Anderson (Max) maintains such a wide-eyed innocence, even surrounded by death and destruction, that it’s heart-wrenching, while Jude’s Jim Sturgess maintains a haunted, jaded and stoic exterior. The best acting, though, is the briefest and the genius is likely not in the intended way. Bono plays dear Dr Robert, his nonsense topped with a white cowboy hat and a barely passable American accent. The ludicrousness and humor adds to the falseness of the character.
The imagery is powerful. The streets of Jude’s hometown, Liverpool, are dingy and dirty. Soot seems to coat every brick on every wall, and its easy to feel Jude’s desire to be free of such a place. Several musical sequences are two things at once, in a clever duality. The “Strawberry Fields Forever” sequence shows Jude’s angered, frenzied painting juxtaposed over Max on the battlefield. Strawberry-bombs fall heavily onto a jungle landscape and land alternately in a fiery explosion and a dramatic splash of bright, blood-red paint that makes you almost as queasy as the blood of Max’s fallen comrades.
Music is, of course, the main focus. The musical numbers are presented in such a way that one doesn’t need to be a Beatles fan to appreciate the inclusion, or even to really be able to recognize them as Beatles songs. Most of the soundtrack fits in seamlessly with the plot and the ones that don’t merely add to the fantasy and freedom of the time. That being said, having a running knowledge of the Beatles does help move the subtle references along. Only one of the characters’ namesake songs were actually featured in the film (“Hey, Jude”), though “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” did play through the credits. Knowing that Max was named through “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” makes a scene with him beating a fan with a shiny hammer amusing, and knowing the song “Sexy Sadie” lends an obviousness to her character in more ways than the Joplin imitation. Some songs were only referenced (“She Came in Through the Bathroom Window”) and some were understated, such as JoJo strumming (not singing) the tune of “A Day in the Life” while news of Martin Luther King’s death played on the news (“A Day in the Life” begins “I saw the news today, oh boy”). Fans may even feel that some other songs would have fit in well, but are absent, such as “The Long and Winding Road” towards the end of the film or “Help!” in several places.
Despite the transparency and predictability of the movie, it was beautifully done. Across the Universe captured the essence of the late 60s, in all its civil unrest, useless violence and stolen innocence.