This was my first film review ever. I wrote it for The Student Life at Pomona College and it’s not very good, but here ya go for posterity. You can see my rabid Beatles devotion leaking out of the corners and also a fetish for Word thesaurus.
For the record, I’ve now amended my position to “This movie doesn’t actually suck that bad.”
The standout moment – “I Want You”:
Don’t call it a throwback! Read on…
This wild, emotive musical directed by Julie Taymor is one of the most unique films to come along in a decade. It’s a heady, almost overreaching mix of stunning visuals, a delicate love story, and Beatles music put to explosive use. The young protagonist, Jude (Jim Sturgess), a working-class teenager from Liverpool, sets off for America to find his father, a soldier who left before he was born. He meets the free-spirited, irresponsible Max (Joe Anderson) and his lovely sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood). The threesome move to New York, encountering a range of eccentric characters while facing the turbulent upheavals of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.
One of the movie’s taglines reads thus: “Within the lyrics of the world’s most famous songs lives a story that has never been told…until now.” I wouldn’t say the story has never been told. The formula unfolds dutifully: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy fights to win girl back. The long-lost father only adds to the suspicion that we’ve seen this before. And the pointed stream of Beatles references can sometimes become a little contrived; upon hearing a line of dialogue begin with “When I’m 64…” the audience shook their heads and sighed in unison.
Thankfully, these shortcomings are mitigated by Universe‘s many strengths. The Beatles songs are deployed in effective, creative, sometimes even shocking ways. One particularly thrilling sequence morphs the idyllic, soft “Strawberry Fields Forever” into a frightening depiction of war. These days the Beatles catalogue is so well-known and overplayed that it seems risky to set a film’s very specific plotlines to the music. The lyrics are even used as occasional dialogue. But each word and melody is woven skillfully into the plot – so skillfully, in fact, that some of them seem cosmically written exactly for this musical.
And on that note, the vocal performances are almost uniformly excellent. Sturgess has a sweet, poignant tenor which serves the love songs particularly well, and Wood has a strong natural talent. Other notable voices include Martin Luther (as a guitarist named Jojo), and Dana Fuchs, whose earthy singer, Sadie, has a raspy powerhouse vocal presence highly reminiscent of Janis Joplin. Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a teenage runaway who moves in with the group, is not given much screen time, but delivers a touching rendition of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” which lends an entirely new, poignant meaning to the tune. Every member of the cast did all their own singing, more often than not in a live take, which really deepened my appreciation. I was also pleased by the surprise cameos, which include a couple of legendary rockstars and one strange and well-casted comedian. Don’t ruin it for yourself and check IMDB; their appearances are very worth it.
Generally, the acting was good. There was, perhaps, a fair amount of overexaggeration, but a musical sometimes requires exactly that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up on Broadway soon with many of the same actors. I must gripe, however, about the stiffness of Wood’s performance (no pun intended). She is beautiful, but appears somewhat blank and detached. Her singing voice, however sweet, rarely betrays anything more than superficial emotion. Her lines are often delivered with curious flatness; she makes a good effort during the more dramatic scenes, but no matter how shrilly she screams, her eyes still remain dead beneath the mascara. Luckily, on the other end of the spectrum is her co-star Sturgess, whose performance is mesmerizing. He never ceases to inhabit Jude’s character, playing ranges of insecurity, confidence, fear, and joy while singing or speaking. He is so scruffily likeable, his eyes so hopeful, that by the end of the movie I guarantee you’re going to want one of him in every color. Anderson, too, is satisfying in his role, making his terror and bitterness about being drafted and fighting in Vietnam palpable in two feature sequences.
Visually, the film can only be described as an experience, a feast for the eyes. Colors are vivid, carefully paired with the music, and used liberally, probably to the greatest effect during the psychedelic representation of “I Am the Walrus.” The movie is an illustration in itself, as literal interpretations of the music are often intercut with conceptual, wondrously abstract images á la Cirque de Soleil. After all is said and done, the most lasting impressions left by the film are the dazzling array of artistic techniques and their beautiful marriages to the music. To see this film is to inhabit a two-hour world of heightened perception and constant, awed enchantment.