When Across the Universe premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival ten years ago today, audiences didn’t quite know what to make of director Julie Taymor‘s Beatles-inspired jukebox musical. In terms of visual ambition, very few musicals can claim to occupy the same realm of creativity and carefully crafted execution. The film’s narrative, on the other hand, is a tangent-riddled, near-nonsensical mess, held together with gumption and reverence to the letter of The Beatles’ lyrics. And yet the film endures as a cult classic, warts and all. Is that because people just want to watch two hours of trippy music videos, plot be damned? Well, that’s likely part of it, but I’d say there’s a bit more to Across the Universe than what’s on the surface.
However, to address that surface level, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the production design of Across the Universe is superb, evolving to meet the needs of the music as it transitions from the hometown pop sensibilities of the Fab Four’s early career to the experimental and psychedelic iterations of the band’s later years. Existing form 1963 to 1970, The Beatles was a group that perfectly captured the evolving culture of the United States and the United Kingdom during that decade, from the innocent excesses of lingering 1950s culture to the radicalized anti-war sentiment that defined the protest culture of the later decade. This is all visualized in Across the Universe through a combination of handcrafted art, as one would see at a rally or art installation, and a plethora of visual effects matched to symbolically stylized choreography to create the sort of transcendental haze born of the era’s drug culture.
This invests meaning into the music videos, whether it be Prudence’s tortured lesbian crush in the innocent “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the somber gospel rendering of “Let It Be” as it depicts the death of a child in the 1967 Detroit riot, or the Eddie Izzard green screen circus show of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” Each of these examples is tangential and superfluous to the main plot of a British immigrant, the woman he loves, and his drafted best friend, but they are each expressions of creativity and allegory in their own right, whether or not their presence is necessary beyond picking the choicest bits of the Beatles catalogue.
By this same token, the film reimagines some songs to have meaning wholly divorced from the original intent. “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” is here reinterpreted as a recruitment song wherein drafted Americans discover the weight of the conflict they’re being forced to shoulder. “I Am the Walrus” is the ramblings of a drug guru who clearly has no understanding of the nonsense he spouts. “Across the Universe” captures the heart of an artist in his guilt for not being able to save his friend, who is currently fighting an unjust war against his will. All of these moments serve to capture the essence of an era, and the plot, for what little that term means in this film, serves only to contextualize the musical interludes are part of a greater whole. As much as the names Lucy, Jude, Maxwell, JoJo, Sadie, and Prudence are cheeky references Beatles songs, the film’s characters aren’t much deeper than the avatars represented in The Beatles’ lyrics because they don’t need to be. They stand in for the experiences of an entire generation, and it’s through their cipherous forms that we revisit a tumultuous time of progress and growth among staggering institutional adversity.
Now, does this make Across the Universe an underappreciated masterpiece? No, not really. Even as broad sketches, characters often act inconsistently from song to song, and the connective tissue between songs doesn’t serve much purpose beyond being a delivery method for the next setpiece. But what Across the Universe does accomplish, even if somewhat unintentionally, is a portrait of the evolving consciousness of a generation’s most defining years, itself defined not by traditional plotting or structure but by the feelings and issues of the day. Sure, it doesn’t have an explicit ethos on war, racial injustice, or revolutionary tactics—and touching on each of these topics so superficially might leave one wanting—but in attempting to tackle so much Across the Universe captures the overwhelming state of political and social awakening that one would need to undergo in order to deal with each of these issues. Especially in light of the similar social strife the United States and the world face today, Across the Universe proves to be a strikingly relevant experience even ten years later.