Jukebox musicals are a reliable, if arguably passe, fad under the burning lights of Broadway, but they’ve rarely seen the same kind of success on film in comparison, with the possible exceptions of something like Mamma Mia! and its recent (hit) sequel. In comparison, films like Romance & Cigarettes and Rock of Ages (based on a Broadway musicals) generally categorize at best as quaint examples of the musical form, and slightly worse as an impression of indifference to the precise melding of previously published music, narrative and image. Be they music videos thinly strung together by bits of dialogue, or stories whose music is shoehorned in, there’s little to say about jukebox movie musicals after the 1960s (with few exceptions, like All That Jazz or Idlewild), and especially if they don’t function as biographical in some way (Jersey Boys and De-Lovely).
Perhaps the one exception that does not include Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! is Julie Taymor’s scrappy and ambitious Across the Universe. Only bringing in a little less than half of its budget, garnering mixed reviews, buried by the studio and subject to possibly sexist media coverage, Across the Universe was, at least commercially, not much of a success. It’s also hard to discern whether the film—which follows a rag tag group of boys and girls (and two star crossed lovers, Jude [Jim Sturgess] and Lucy [Evan Rachel Wood]) during the 1960s, using the music of the Beatles to examine their various personal and political trajectories—has much of a cultural legacy or influence on other work. At least as mainstream filmmaking goes, there hasn’t been anything like Across the Universe since.
Liverpudlian Jude travels to the States to find his long lost father and, in the process, befriends trickster Max (with the silver hammer, played by Joe Anderson), falls for Max’s sister Lucy, ends up in New York, living with aspiring recording artist (sexy) Sadie (Dana Fuchs), her guitarist Jo-Jo (Martin Luther), and closeted runaway Prudence (T.V. Carpio), who came in through the bathroom window. Watching a bunch of disparate youth with varying levels of affect become transformed by political revolution and cultural upheaval is a quaint conceit, but using the music of one of the most famous bands in the world would probably threaten to make such an idea too twee. More than 50 years removed from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it’s both impossible to overstate the influence the Beatles had on both culture and politics, and vice versa, but also hard to talk about it. It often feels self-evident.
The cleverness in Taymor’s film is revealed if you take off the italics from the Beatles music. Its presence is too easily written off as a gimmick when its actual utility falls in line with Taymor’s other films and theatre pieces. From Titus to M Butterfly, Taymor’s work finds its locus in an investigation of what shapes what: art or politics? To unpack her chicken-versus-egg conundrum, she leans into Derridean techniques of deconstruction, occasionally stripping works of their original context and recontextualizing them with anachronisms or surrealist flourishes. Her rock-infused Titus sends a child back to a pop-drenched Roman Empire.
Perhaps Across the Universe was most subject to scrutiny not because of it’s sometimes cutesy way of stuffing the film with references to the band’s discography and mythology, but because of its difficulty in reconciling two kinds of aesthetics. Part of the film is a solidly told, conventional narrative about said rag tag friends and how they’re affected by cultural and political change. The other part is a collection of innovatively crafted music videos that attempt to function like the political art of the era, which is much more representative of Taymor’s aesthetic than the narrative slices. At times, Across the Universe operates like two separate but related films about the same era and the same subject.
Perhaps, then, the brilliance of the film is that it is about the struggle to articulate politics through aesthetics, and the internal debate artists have regarding which should take precedence. After psychedelic trips with Bono as a guru named Dr. Robert, the audience more clearly understands the tension becomes between artistic and political expression. Jude’s art shifts from apolitical portraits to the increasingly political (through an abstract lens), his “Strawberry Fields Forever” rendering the fruit as the bombs ravaging Vietnam during the war. Lucy becomes involved in an antiwar activist group called SDR.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” is a staggering, sobering sequence (as is the use of “Let It Be” during a scene dramatizing the Detroit Riots), one that leaves the film’s more standard narrative techniques behind in favor of a video art treatment, free to superimpose footage of the Vietnam War onto Jude’s face, to graphically paint bullet holes onto TVs while zooming out to reveal an abyss of jingoistic news narratives, to insert strawberries in the place of bazooka ammo. It’s a sequence that carefully but vigorously illustrates an artist’s political awakening, yet engenders another brawl in terms of how he can express his political beliefs.
While Jude’s motivation to disrupt an SDR meeting is partially out of jealousy, he points out an issue that was nonetheless relevant both in its time and contemporarily: the overwhelming dominance of men in activist groups. So the question he poses to Lucy is not only about articulating political awareness but also concerns reconciling deeply flawed hierarchies within political groups. Jude storms into SDR’s office singing “Revolution,” asking, “You say you want a revolution?” Both the song in its original context and within the context of the film asserts an ambivalence about how exactly to change the world, through what means, and to what end, almost as if grafting the debate between Paul McCartney and John Lennon onto Jude and Lucy (though Lennon wrote the song). Jude ends up embodying uncertainty, even after political awakening, edging towards a self-hatred with his inability to become politically active in a more material way. The success of that scene is predicated on Taymor’s, and in turn Sturgess’s, ability to express both the character’s political uncertainty and his romantic insecurity, ready to accuse the SDR leader of trying to seduce Lucy, as if to suggest that love, art and politics are intrinsic to one another.
If those sequences, which occur nearly back to back, express a frustration and an ongoing scrimmage in what should be done concerning politics and art, the film offers no easy answers. After Jude makes a scene, he heads back to Liverpool and Lucy, it is implied, continues to stay politically active. Other characters reconcile with artistic and political purity against the tide of both growing commercialism and corruption in the record industry (Jo-Jo and Sadie get together, break up and get together again) and the inequity in media portrayals of the Vietnam War (kaleidoscopically animated in a hellish version of “Helter Skelter”). Max is drafted, wounded, comes back to the US with PTSD and his dreams of radical politics and nightmares of American apathy collide in the opium-induced fever dream version of “Happiness is a Warm Gun.” Stunning visions of cloned nurses offering momentary relief are little else but hallucination, no more real than the prospect of tangible political change, or at least the kind Lucy is fighting for, the kind Jude rolls around in his head. Lucy is nothing if not an impressive emblem of the hope that shone through the most optimistic during the era. Jude is a centrist, too pragmatic to pull up his pants and work outside of some art that can only quell his own guilt about the world as it is and as he wants it to be.
Even if the film shifts its focus away from it’s more interesting questions about art versus politics, opting for something a bit simpler (“Love is all you need,” everyone sings cheerily as Jude and Lucy reunite.), there’s nothing like Across the Universe. It is hopeful beyond reason, aesthetically challenging and politically charged in a way that films of its ilk rarely dare to be. Will a musical ever contain both a scene as touching as Prudence’s queer rewriting of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or as inclined to indict the American Military as “I Want You” in the same 30 minutes? Its imperfections iare absolutely part of its charm, but its ambitions are something special.