MCN Columnists
Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

Across the Universe

2007 turned out to be a great year for quality movies, and Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe was one of the crown jewels of the group. It is a musical depiction of life and culture across the Sixties that uses Beatles songs to define the emotional and spiritual states of the characters and to evoke, with a comprehensive authority, nostalgia for the times. Released as a 2-Disc Deluxe Edition by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, it makes a fantastic DVD, not just because the picture looks amazing during the psychedelic digressions and the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound keeps your room spinning, but because this is the kind of movie that, if you like it, you’re going to want to watch it over and over again.

The last musical to use wall-to-wall Beatles songs was an unmitigated disaster, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In part, its flaws were simply a result of marketing hubris, bad direction and an innocuous fantasy narrative, but it also failed because Beatles producer George Martin was too involved with creating the soundtrack and generally did not let the songs’ interpreters find their own voices. Many of the songs in Across the Universebegin a cappella, and even those that don’t often have radically different orchestrations than the original numbers. But that is what becomes so riveting, at least the first few times you watch the film. No other group of songs is so well known down to the minutest changes in pitch or rhythm, and so their application in the movie not only works from the familiar, but from where the choices are made to alter the familiar. Early in the film, a gay cheerleader sits on bleachers watching the other members of her squad while singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” and it is the explosion of feelings that comes from what is expected with the song crashing into what is unexpected that makes the sequence so rapturously powerful.

The film’s true spiritual doppelganger is Milos Forman’s Hair. Several parts of the plot appear to have been lifted from the stage version, as the central character comes from England and hangs out with another group of characters living in New York City’s bohemia during the Sixties, while the Vietnam War and other social upheavals loom around them. There are shots in the marvelous draft induction sequence (posters of Uncle Sam come alive, singing “I Want You” ) that are taken directly from Forman’s designs, and there is the general atmosphere of hippies breaking into song, supported by often subtle and always transcendent choreography. Viewers who don’t understand or connect with musicals are likely to dismiss both films as inconsequential fluff, but what is missed in judging the aesthetic of all musicals is that the music is a valid substitute for drama, even though its payoffs are less quantifiable. The joy the music brings to the viewer is a legitimate alternative to the more detailed exploration of human relationships that a non-musical must deliver. Across the Universe runs 132 minutes, which would seem to be way too long, but what could Taymor possibly have cut out to the movie’s advantage? There is one poor little 57-second deleted number that appears with the film on the first platter, and you wish that even it had been left in. The narrative has several romantic plot strings, which are all strummed in exquisite harmony, and the emotional performances back up fully what is being exchanged in the dialog and the songs. The characters are in love, the viewer loves the music, and from the music and the characters, then, the viewer’s capacity for love is massaged and enlivened. That’s all you need, right?

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. There is an alternate Spanish track in 5.1 Dolby (with English songs) and optional English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai subtitles (“Quelqu’un va-t-il écouter mon histoire? A propos de la fille venue pour rester…”), a nice collection of production stills, and two alternate takes, running six minutes, of Eddie Izzard singing “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” one of the weakest sequences in the film, because it is the one segment that brings to mind nightmares of Sgt. Pepper, whereGeorge Burns did the number.

Taymor and music orchestrator Elliot Goldenthal supply a commentary track. Goldenthal explains how he approached each tune. Taymor spends some time describing what is happening on the screen, but she does provide details on how the major sequences were conceived and shot, speaks eagerly about the young cast members, explains some of the inspirations for the different passages (although she fails to give credit to Magical Mystery Tour even as she lifts not just allusions but actual cinematic tricks from the film, commenting upon the latter as if they were her own idea; she doesn’t acknowledge Hair, either), and deconstructs some of the film’s cultural influences. “The thing about the music is, a lot of it has that tremendous inspiration from black American music, and so when you are starting to produce and rearrange it again, in some ways it was interesting to go back to some of the sources in the orchestration of that music, and that gives it, also, variety, so all the songs aren’t done with the same orchestration a band would have.”

The second platter features an excellent 29-minute production featurette with lots of behind-the-scenes footage where you can watch Taymor coming up with ideas as well as seeing to their execution. There is also a good 27-minute segment about the cast, a 15-minute segment about adapting the music, a nice 9-minute segment on the choreography and a 7-minute piece on the special effects. Finally, there is a 35-minute collection of extended song numbers, which makes an ideal encore for the film

February 28, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

Be Sociable, Share!

Comments are closed.

The Ultimate DVD Geek

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon