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Magical Mystery Tour

“A visual feast,” many are saying of Across the Universe. That it is. My viewing companion noted, “I can just imagine how scary that movie would be if you were stoned.” Though the critical reception was cool, the film is definitely worth a look, and I plan to take at least one more.
Growing up long after these songs had been inescapably woven into the fabric of the 20th century and also living with a major Beatles fan, I had heard the band’s songs too many times to count and was not expecting to be enthralled. And for the first 15–20 minutes, I wasn’t. I didn’t understand what was going on: Were the characters supposed to represent band members and people in their lives? Was this just going to be a revue? Then I decided to let go of my expectations and conjectures. I realized that it was doing what Twyla Tharp’s Movin’ Out (which I’ve never seen but only read about) had done with the music of Billy Joel: taken characters from the songs and built a story around them. And so I literally sat back and allowed myself to revel in the kaleidoscope. I love how director Julie Taymor has visually distilled and crystallized the revolutionary times of the 1960s—it’s delightfully parodic—but that quality falters as the film progresses. I also relished a fresh way to see (and hear) the music
We all know the stories behind many of the songs, but Taymor and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have given us unexpected interpretations of them. “Hey Jude” and “Blackbird” are lovely examples, taken out of their original context. Some of the renditions, particularly originally up-tempo love songs such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” feel too slow and sappy, and there are occasional bits of spasticity in the choreography. But “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” here a comment on the price of liberty, is a total knockout. “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road?” as done by Dana Fuchs, playing a Janis Joplin character named Sadie, ramps up the song’s energy in a way the original never did. The staging of “If I Fell,” by Evan Rachel Wood’s Lucy, is charming. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the strongest theme in the film’s marketing, is ocularly marvelous. A cameo by Bono singing “I Am the Walrus” is lots of fun. (A few of my favorite songs were missing, but I hardly noticed, unlike when I went to see the Rolling Stones concert and they didn’t do “Gimme Shelter.”)
The balance between caricature and emotional truth is difficult to achieve, and the actors do a great job. Liverpudlian Jude, played by Jim Sturgess, is the story’s binding thread and seems to represent the Beatles, Paul McCartney in particular. Sturgess’ voice is reminiscent of Ewan McGregor’s in Moulin Rouge, and Sturgess is at least as enchanting as McGregor, though Jude is less innocent than Moulin Rouge’s Christian. The beautiful Wood seems bland compared to the scenery, but it’s a nice contrast. Jim Anderson is fun as mad Max, making the character more real than he might seem on paper. The core cast is filled out strongly by Fuchs, Martin Luther as JoJo (à la Jimi Hendrix), and T.V. Carpio as Prudence.
—Janelle Tipton

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