NEW YORK—When visionary film and theater director Julie Taymor (“Frida,” “Titus,” Broadway’s “The Lion King”) signed on to make a musical about the turbulent 1960s scored solely to Beatles songs, she didn’t yet know exactly what the film would turn out to be.
But she knew what she didn’t want right from the top.
Across the Universe
Evan Rachel Wood, Jim Sturgess, Joe Anderson, Dana Fuchs, Martin Luther McCoy, T.V. Carpio, Bono, Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker, Salma Hayek
(Columbia Pictures; US theatrical: 14 Sep 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 28 Sep 2007 (General release); 2007)
“I knew our versions of the songs were going to be different from the originals, sometimes dramatically so,” Taymor said during an interview at her offices in Manhattan. `The Beatles’ music is in our DNA. It has stood the test of time because they were great, great songs, and they were perfect. They are perfect. So if I was going to be trying to copy them in song and arrangement styles, I’d rather just use the originals.”
So unlike other Hollywood movies that prominently feature Beatles music on their soundtracks—including “The World According to Garp” (“When I’m 64”), “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (“Twist and Shout”) and “Shampoo” (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”)—all 33 Beatles tunes in “Across the Universe” are sung by the actors themselves, often in a very different manner than the one immortalized on vinyl.
The movie is a boy-meets-girl story between Jude (Jim Sturgess), a working-class Liverpool lad who comes to America to track down his father, and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), an all-American girl whose boyfriend is deploying to Vietnam.
The two are introduced by Lucy’s brother Max (Joe Anderson) and are soon swept along the turbulent current of `60s counterculture, ending up in New York’s East Village, hanging out with a Janis Joplin-esque singer named Sadie (Dana Fuchs), her Hendrix-like guitarist JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), and their friend Prudence (T.V. Carpio).
Taymor, who signed on to direct the movie based on a three-page treatment and a $45 million budget (which included the $10 million fee to secure the use of the songs), said the most difficult part of melding the music with the story was trying not to be too obvious while still giving the characters a reason to, say, sing “Hey Jude.”
“The thing with the characters’ names, which you can either love or hate, is that if you’re going to use a song like `Dear Prudence,’ it’s much better for it to be contextual and make it part of the story than to just have it in the background,” Taymor said. “But I was always aware that putting these songs into a literal environment was a risky thing to do. If you don’t like the movie, that’s probably going to be the main thing that weighs on you: that the songs become literal.”
But Taymor said she made sure the songs always propelled the story, a mandate that forced her to leave out a couple of her favorites.
“I toyed with Jude and Lucy singing `And I Love Her,’ but it crossed the line where musicals become corny when you have these love duets,” Taymor said. “‘Baby You Can Drive My Car’ was fun, but it was unnecessary. There was a `Sgt. Pepper’ moment when Jude is arrested, but comedy so soon after the Columbia University riots was not a good idea.”
Taymor makes no apologies for using songs such as “If I Fell” (beautifully sung by Wood as a soliloquy) or “Revolution” (sung by Sturgess while fighting against a group of naive college radicals) in an on-the-nose manner.
But more often than not, “Across the Universe” employs The Beatles in unexpected ways, like using “Strawberry Fields Forever” to drive a war montage after Taymor had seen a documentary about Vietnam that referred to the “strawberry bombs” used by the U.S. military during that conflict.
Taymor, who listened to “every single Beatles cover version” she could find while preparing the film, said she also drew inspiration simply from hearing women sing the Fab Four’s music without changing lyrics such as “I wanna be your man.”
“In a way, The Beatles were channeling 15-year-old girls in a lot of their songs,” Taymor said. “We think of them today as these four young blokes, but there are songs like `Hold Me Tight’ and `It Won’t Be Long’ that actually work really well in a female voice now, because those kinds of songs wouldn’t be sung by young male rock singers today.”
That revelation inspired one of the most memorable scenes in “Across the Universe,” in which Prudence, a high school cheerleader, turns “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” into a slow-tempo ballad of unrequited longing—sung to another cheerleader.
“That scene isn’t about Prudence being a lesbian or anything like that,” Taymor said. `Prudence is just finding her sexuality, which is what was interesting about that time. People didn’t say `I am a lesbian and I’m coming out.’ She just has these feelings, and the whole point in that era was to let that happen. Explore whatever it is you’re inclined to do. Let it be, so to speak. It’s really not the same now.”
Taymor also enlisted a few famous friends to make cameos in the film, including U2’s Bono, who is collaborating on her upcoming Broadway adaptation of “Spider-Man” and performs two songs in the film, one on-screen (“I Am the Walrus”) and the other over the end credits (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”).
Another sequence, a hallucinatory interlude in which British comedian Eddie Izzard performs “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” alongside stop-motion animation and puppetry, became a point of contention between Taymor and Revolution Studios chief Joe Roth, who bankrolled the production and threatened to recut the finished film after Taymor’s original version was deemed too long.
But Taymor stood her ground, arguing the sequence played into the “late 1960s Beatles era of `Yellow Submarine’ and `Magical Mystery Tour’ that had so many of those surreal qualities. Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, both of whom have seen the movie, both told me that was one of their favorite scenes.”
In the end, the 133-minute cut of “Across the Universe” playing in theaters is the version Taymor envisioned, and she hopes the movie will appeal not only to Baby Boomers but also “young people who grew up listening to their parents playing Beatles music.”
Taymor even made sure the movie stayed in PG-13 territory during filming (when the characters smoke pot, the actors toke on imaginary joints, because drug use is an automatic R-rating) in hopes that adolescents will not only turn out to see it, but also take its message to heart.
“I hope the movie isn’t just fun, but is also able to inspire conversation about how you can take control and change your universe,” Taymor said. “When the movie starts, Lucy is not ahead of the curve. She’s not a leader. She’s as disillusioned as we all get. But she gets involved once it becomes personal for her.
“There are a lot of people in this country who have brothers and sisters fighting in Iraq now. ... It’s not most of us. And it’s not right for the rest of us to simply stay home and play on the Internet.”