(Note: This was written as a message board post, but I think it's good enough to post here as well. It's not like anyone is reading anyway.)
Across The Universe - see it. Now.
It's a movie - a musical that, like Moulin Rouge and Singin' In The Rain before it, uses pre-existing, not original, music for the musical numbers. However, unlike those two films, the music is all taken from one group - the Beatles. In fact, the more I think about it, the best way to describe it would be to say the movie takes place in the universe of the Beatles catalog.
The main characters (and many of the minor ones) all take their names from characters in Beatles' songs. Our lead is Jude, a young Liverpudian shipbuilder who comes to the U.S. to find his father, a U.S. soldier stationed in England during WWII. While here he meets Max (Maxwell), Max's sister Lucy, and several others who all make their way to New York City. Some of the Beatles connections are obvious - we are introduced to a character named Prudence, and yes Dear Prudence is eventually one of the songs. On the other hand, though we see Max at one point banging on a fan with a big silver hammer, that song never appears. Some of the other Beatles connections are not so obvious, or at least force you to be paying attention. Jude's girlfriend in the opening scenes when he is still in Liverpool is named Molly. Near the close of the movie, Jude has returned to Liverpool and is once more working on the docks. Molly, has married Jude's co-worker Desmond. Desmond's name isn't mentioned at the start of the movie; Molly's name isn't mentioned at the end of the movie.
The film is set in the mid- to late 60s (though the timeline is a little loose and, ultimately, not that important to the tale) with events that mirror the 60s in the real universe. One of the best things about the film is how those events are presented in a way that makes it impossible not to relate them to our current world situation, yet at no time is the viewer hit over the head with that connection. It's just there. (As Ebert says in his review "It's not political, which means it's political to it's core.")
The performances are first-rate. The main cast is mostly unknowns, with Evan Rachel Wood being the biggest name among the leads. The leads do almost all of the singing as well, and they do it quite well, especially when you take into account that many of the musical performances used in the film were recorded live on set, a rarity in a time when most film musical performances are recorded in perfect recording situations and then dubbed in. There are three guest appearances that are absolutely perfect. Joe Cocker sings Come Together as three different characters - a homeless street singer, a pimp, and a hippie. Bono shows up as a Ken Kesey pastiche and sings I Am The Walrus. Eddie Izzard is Mr. Kite, singing, well, Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite. (Bono also sings Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds over the closing credits.)
The film is beautifully photographed, with a bright mix of colors and several extended pyschedelic sequences (one after the characters drink the Kesey characters red Kool-Aid). It's also spectacularly choreographed. The director, Julie Taymor (director of several broadway productions, including The Lion King), does most of the choreography herself.
The songs are used wonderfully; some are presented in a straightforward manner much like most musicals. For instance, I've Just Seen A Face takes place in a bowling alley right after Jude meets Lucy, and it could almost be a music video, it's such a literal translation of the song. On the other hand, the aforementioned I Am The Walrus begins with the main cast having just drunk the acid, slowly transforms into a psychedelic dream, melts into all the characters on the Kesey-esque bus as merry pranksters, and ends at the farm of a Doctor Geary.
The arrangements also vary, from straightforward versions that are remarkably faithful to the originals to radical reinventions that bring out meaning you might not have seen before. One of the best examples (I was reluctant to use it, as Ebert mentions it in his review, but it is one of the best examples) is I Want To Hold Your Hand. That song takes on a poignancy, a deep sadness, when the hand belongs to a person the singer can never hold hands with.
Like most musicals, it's not a film for literalists. It's a film that forces the viewer to commit, to relinquish themselves, to almost become a part of the film in much the same way that live theatre forces audiences to become part of the proceedings. (Yeah, that's vague - you either know what I mean or don't, and if you don't, I can't explain it any better than that.) I can't think of a film I've seen recently that had me smiling as much, that hit me as hard emotionally in the painful spots, that had me cheering inside as much that the two main characters would get together while still having doubts about whether or not they would. In spirit and energy it reminds me most of Hair, though in execution it is a far different animal. As I left the theatre I immediately set out to make two purchases - the Across the Universe soundtrack and a copy of Hair on DVD. I found the former (there were two versions, a 16-song version with selected songs and a 31-song two-disc version with all the songs from the film, which is the version I got and have listened to more or less non-stop since buying), couldn't find the latter.
I would assume that if the film is still playing here in small-town Iowa then it shouldn't be difficult to find anywhere bigger. I intend to see it again this weekend. So you should see it. Now.
So see it. Now.
Film Ick Review and Essay