So, I've heard the "Hollywood musical" is making a comeback. I'm not sure where that came from, since most of the musicals that have come out in the past several years have been movie versions of already popular Broadway shows, not a musical that came from Hollywood. The exceptions I can think of are Pitch Perfect, if that can be called a musical; Repo! The Genetic Opera, the first rock opera in ages; and Across The Universe (2007). Across The Universe did use songs exclusively from The Beatles, but it feels more like a musical that any other "Hollywood Musical" released in a long time.
Jude (Jim Sturgess), visiting the United States in search of his long-lost father, meets Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), through her brother, Max (Joe Anderson), a student at Princeton. After deciding to drop out of college, Max and Jude drive to New York and settle in the sprawling East Village tenement and are soon joined by Lucy. Their landlady, Sadie (Dana Fuchs), is an aspiring rock singer and the resident earth mother. Rounding out the bohemian household are Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitarist who arrives from Detroit after his younger brother's death in the Detroit riots, and Prudence (T.V. Carpio) an Asian-American lesbian cheerleader who hitchhikes to New York from Dayton, Ohio. Each one is desperate to make something, anything, of themselves, but the world is changing around them and is pulling each of them in very different directions as the Vietnam War takes its toll on The United States.
All of the music in Across The Universe is from The Beatles. Their music is classic, timeless, and outstanding. I'm not real big into music and even I love The Beatles. The songs are jazzed up and redone with somewhat more contemporary music, but mostly stick to their source material very well. At worst, they sound like respectable covers of popular songs.
A couple of the songs are done a little differently, though. In an early scene, Prudence is singing "I Want to Hold Your Hand," but it's done as a slow, soft song instead of a fast, upbeat song. Given that context you realize that the lyrics are not about the excitement of holding a lovers hand, but about unrequited love. It's actually a sad scene and sets Prudence up as a tragic character.
On the one hand, the story isn't terribly complicated, nor are the characters very well developed. They're all likable and their plights are relatable. What makes the story interesting is the songs. The songs move the story forward and develop the characters remarkably well. It's almost as if the songs which were written 40 years prior to the movie's release were tailor-made for this movie.
The visuals are absolutely stunning to behold. There's a bizarre mix of mostly live action, lots of CGI supplements, and some practical effects as well. It's so beautifully done, that I doubt you'd be able to tell which is which most of the time. The visuals compliment the 1960's vibe very well; they really play up the psychedelic aspects during particularly strange Beatles songs. It does seem like a visual trip at times. I'm pretty sure that if the technology existed in the 1960's, this is the kind of visuals a lot of movies and music videos would have strived for.
There are tons of Beatles references throughout the movie. If you're not already a Beatles fan, they'll fly over your head without your notice. Dialogue subtly include Beatles song titles, some shots imitate famous Beatles pictures, and some events mirror things The Beatles actually did. It's not always clear if it's done for humor's sake; sometimes it's kind of funny if you catch it, sometimes it's just a clever nod to The Beatles. It's not distracting in any way. If you notice it, you'll probably smile. If you are a non-Beatles fan, you'll probably just not notice.
The 1960's are well captivated in Across The Universe. In fact, many scenes are derived from actual 1960's events; violent student protests at Columbia University, the bombing in Greenwich Village, and of course the Vietnam War. There are also characters who reference pop culture icons of the 1960's. Sadie is an overt reference to Janis Joplin; Janis' throaty singing voice is well imitated by Dana Fuchs. Jo-Jo is a clear reference to Jimi Hendrix, particularly after Sadie dresses him up in a purple shirt and bandana - one of Jimi's most famous stage costumes. Minor character Dr. Robert has a psychedelic painted bus similar to that of Ken Kesey's. If you take out the special effects and the fact that people spontaneously burst into song, Across The Universe captures the feel of the 1960's remarkably well.
Across The Universe is a trippy, strange, fun, romantic, humorous musical that is unlike anything else I've ever seen. It's almost like a two hour Beatles music video that has a plot. Granted, the plot is fairly predictable, but the characters are interesting enough to be invested in them to at least some degree. It's the visual effects and music that really brings this movie to life. There are no less than 33 Beatles songs used in the movie either in their entirety or in part; they are remarkably well integrated and move the movie forward. If you're a Beatles fan, this is not something to miss. If you somehow are not a Beatles fan, there's still plenty of fascinating visuals and interesting 1960's references to see in this movie. I own a copy of this on Blu-Ray and it's sitting on my shelf next to other favorites of mine, I even have the soundtrack. I recommend seeing Across The Universe and getting your own copy as well.
Here's the trailer for Across The Universe so you can hear a sample of the songs and see some of the amazing visuals:
Would you like to see more "Hollywood Musicals?" Not movies that are based on existing Broadway shows, but actual original musicals from Hollywood? Comment below and tell me why or why not.