Set in the turbulent headiness, and heady turbulence, of the late 1960s, when flower power met the thwack of police billy clubs, when the Vietnam War raged and inner cities burned, Across the Universe is a humble tale of love and protest, mind-expanding drugs and mind-numbing interpretive dance.
And it's about rock and roll, of course, and folks who look, act and sound a lot like Jimi and Janis, but are called Jo-Jo and Sadie instead.
One thing you have to say about Taymor: She's not timid. It takes a fair amount of cheek to go messing with the canon of Lennon and McCartney (and a tune by George, too: "Something in the Way She Moves"). And then to spin "I Want to Hold Your Hand" into a high school cheerleader lesbian lament, and "I Want You" into a scary, dancing Uncle Sam induction center production number. "Dear Prudence" becomes a peace march; "A Little Help from My Friends," a Princeton frat-boy binge-drinking fest.
Stripped to the bone, Across the Universe is the story of Jude (Jim Sturgess), a working-class Brit, and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a Midwestern suburban girl. Jude has befriended Lucy's brother, Max (Joe Anderson). There's a Thanksgiving family dinner, and then Lucy moves to Greenwich Village. She and Jude fall in love, and then fall apart as she gets radicalized (handing out flyers for the SDS) and he gets hassled by Immigration.
But there are also the stories of Sadie (yes, she's sexy), a whiskey-slugging Joplinesque figure played by Dana Fuchs; of Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), an ace guitarist who lets his 'fro grow as he immerses himself in hippie culture and couture, and of Prudence (T.V. Carpio), the aforementioned lesbian cheerleader, who likewise quits the Midwest for the Big Apple, where she stares moonily at Sadie and shows up to leap and shimmy in several of the movie's song-and-dance sequences. (As many as 350 dancers were deployed during the making of this baby.)
And then there are trippy little guest turns from Joe Cocker, Bono, Eddie Izzard, Salma Hayek (Taymor directed her in Frida), to name a few. Not to mention the ghosts of Timothy Leary and Neal Cassady, whooshing about in tinted glasses and paisley hankies, their names changed to protect the brain-fried.
Across the Universe is an eyeful, and an earful. It boasts kaleidoscopic animation and a couple of anachronistic gaffes. It overstays its welcome. And its appeal will depend on respective audiences' affinity for, or tolerance of, movie musicals, and artsy choreography - but, most significantly, on how one feels about a band of fresh-scrubbed actors and musicians grabbing hold of a songbook that's already been claimed by, and provided the soundtrack for, a generation.
Across the Universe **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Julie Taymor. With Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Martin Luther McCoy and Dana Fuchs. Distributed by Columbia Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 11 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (drugs, sex, nudity, profanity, interpretive dance, adult themes)
Playing at: Ritz East
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.