At other times, the famously eccentric Taymor does herself proud - a highlight is a drug-trip collage of animation, puppets, digital wizardry and inventive photography that features Bono as a guru preaching higher West Coast consciousness.
The movie has its Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix stand-ins, but I'm not sure who Bono's meant to be. He claims both the Walrus AND the egg-man.
By that point, I would have paid $100 to hear "Chattanooga Choo Choo." Anything but another Beatles song, with apologies to the Fab Four.
Most musicals feature a dozen or so big numbers. "Across the Universe" features more than 30 as it tells the story of star-crossed lovers (Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess), a reluctant draftee (Joe Anderson) and collaborating musicians (Martin Luther McCoy, Dana Fuchs).
Individually, the songs are quite good - nicely reworked harmonies, good vocal work by the no-name cast. But every song is also a gargantuan musical production with choreography and props. It was about the one-hour mark, when Eddie Izzard appeared as Mr. Kite before a gang of gigantic blue meanies, that I felt Maxwell's silver hammer come down on my head.
The Beatles wrote a zillion terrific songs, and you realize with something akin to horror that
you're going to hear every one.
Every character has a Beatlesian name - Jo Jo, Sadie, Lucy, Jude, and each gets his own song. It makes for a long day. (Dear Prudence has locked herself in the closet. Do you think she'll come out to play? Maybe if we all get together and sing . . . )
Anytime you see any object that's ever been mentioned in a Beatles song (O merciless gods, it's a strawberry!), you know you're in for it. I think I made it through all 130 minutes without seeing a yellow submarine. There were a few trips to the restroom.
I don't know what "Across the Universe" will do to the Beatles legacy, probably nothing, but it will certainly burnish Taymor's rep as a stylist unafraid of the outlandish (remember "Titus"?).
Here, it's often a case of too much, too far. Case in point - a group of Asian water nymphs who appear to be modeled after the naked, napalmed Vietnamese girl in the famous photo.
Is there really a Beatles song for that?
Pop music has, more and more, supplanted original composition as a musical accompaniment to film, and there's always been something lazy and facile about this nexus.
Directors often seize upon a single lyrical phrase or a single hook or riff to augment a scene. The rest of the song is often unrelated to, or opposed to, what is happening on screen, and is just jettisoned.
It's rare to find a pop standard that suits a film perfectly, organically, and maybe it's ludicrous to expect that kind of union.
Taking 30 songs and hoping to hammer them into something that fits a generic generational saga is probably a fool's errand. *
Produced by Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd, Matthew Gross, directed by Julie Taymor, written by Dick Clement, Ian La Frenais, distributed by Sony Pictures.