Across the Universe

The stars of Across the Universe. Not pictured: James Urbaniak.

Since no one else seems to be saying it, I just want to get this out there:

Indie vet James

  is a revelation as a lizard-like 60s rock-promoter Svengali in Julie Taymor’s mind-blowing head-trip freakout Across the Universe! He slyly takes everything you thought you knew about lizard-like 60s rock-promoter Svengalis and explodes it into a million tiny pieces, then stuffs the pieces into a psychedelic pipe made of strawberries and blood, lights it afire with the flame of self-knowledge and puffs out multi-colored clouds of your brain!!

Seriously, my friend Mr. Urbaniak is in this new movie and you should go see it for that reason.

Not a single review has mentioned his performance, but then it’s a very big, very long movie with a whole lot of wonderful performers in it. Mr. Urbaniak shares his anonymity with, to name a few, Joe Cocker, Harry J. Lennix and a strangely uncredited Dylan Baker.

Time and current level of energy do not permit me at this moment to get across what this movie is, but let me just say two things: none of the reviews I’ve read of it have captured what it tries to do, and the show I was at last night (at the Arclight) was sold out. Which, for a movie this deeply weird, is pretty freaking impressive.

I will say this: not everything in the movie works (I’m looking at you, Eddie-Izzard-talking-his-way-through-“Mr.-Kite”), but even when concepts fall on their faces, they never do it in quite the way you expect them to and it turns out that, to continue the metaphor, when they fall on their faces there’s always something interesting on their backsides as well. It’s a big, ambitious, difficult-to-dismiss movie and the first movie in a long, long time that actually kept my wife and I talking about it for the entire drive back to Santa Monica.

I will say another thing: it shocks me, shocks me, that, at this late date, I can happen upon a movie that actually makes me hear Beatles songs in a new light. I’ve heard these songs literally thousands of times, in both the original recordings and dozens of cover versions, and time after time during Across the Universe I found myself thinking “Hey, that song’s a lot better than I thought it was” or “Wow, this song works on a whole different level than I thought it was going to,” or even “You know, I thought I knew this song, but Julie Taymor somehow just made me hear it again for the first time.” Which strikes me as something of a miracle just by itself.

The movie leaps and pounces wildly from idea to idea. Some of the ideas are kind of jaw-droppingly brilliant and inspired, and others make you want to jump up onto the screen and punch the director in the face. Sometimes both at once. I kind of mean this as a compliment.

The story, let me just say, is, erm, quite simple. But I would argue that Taymor wishes it so, the better to get at her real subject. What is her real subject? Well that’s the part I can’t quite put my finger on. She gives equal time to Vietnam, the protest movement, the Detroit riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King on the one hand, and on the other wishes to tell a love story and the tale of struggling artists dealing with issues of commercial success (with the incandescent James Urbaniak as the terminus of 60s commercialism — the “bad guy” of the piece, come to think of it). The movie, it seems to me, takes place in the weird area where the artistic shapes the personal and the personal shapes the political, which is something I haven’t seen presented in a movie in quite this explosive, unpredictable a way before.

I’m told that this movie has been butchered by craven, cruel, Mammon-worshipping demon studio executives, and while I’m curious to see how the original cut went, the movie is also quite long (2 1/2 hours) and doesn’t feel “cut down” at all — quite the opposite, ideas and motifs are given plenty of room to simmer and develop and murmur, submerging in one place and then bobbing up again in another.


 tells me that this is, indeed, Ms. Taymor’s cut.  Bully for her!

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29 Responses to “Across the Universe”
  1. craigjclark says:

    All of the reviews that I’ve seen have been decidedly mixed, with most of the negative ones centered on how literal the song choices are. (The two examples cited most frequently are “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Dear Prudence”) Roger Ebert gives it four stars, though, so that’s something.

    After reading about this off and on in Urbaniak’s journal, I was disappointed when I finally got to see the trailer and there wasn’t even a fleeting glimpse of him. Glad to see he wasn’t cut out entirely.

    I like Julie Taymor’s work a lot, and have ever since attending a late-night showing of Titus that was packed its opening weekend. She’s one of the few directors working today with a sense of ambition, who’s interested in taking film to new and exciting places, even at the risk of falling on her face.

    Too bad I probably won’t get to see for myself since I doubt the film will be making it to my area (yet I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry still gets four showings a day.)

    • Todd says:

      “She’s So Heavy” has one moment, you’ll know it when you see it, when a great idea does become depressingly literal. “Dear Prudence,” on the other hand, starts out depressingly literal but then heads in a different direction altogether and surprises me.

      But all this talk about whether songs “work” or not is, honestly, and I don’t know how else to put this, not what the movie is about. I don’t know how a movie rises “above” actors singing Beatles songs, but there were long stretches where I forgot that that was a selling point for the movie. And then something would happen like a girl coming in through the bathroom window, for no reason except that she could.

    • clayfoot says:

      Look, some of us don’t get to see these things exactly awake or attentive or sober; blunt, literal symbolism and music may be all we can manage. Don’t take that away from us!

      Also, Strawberries and Blood is so the name of my next band.

  2. chadu says:

    I was pondering whether or not to see this as a matinee or at the Drunkhouse (second run cinema and drafthouse), and you’ve sold me on seeing it.

    Urbaniak + Izzard cameos/bit parts = Full of Win.

    Would you recommend the sober matinee, or would beer “enhance” the experience?


    • Todd says:

      I have never watched a movie while drunk, stoned or high. I will say, however, that I have tried hallucinogens exactly once and there is a scene in Across the Universe which exactly captured my experience.

  3. curt_holman says:

    It struck me that there’s probably no more thankless or underappreciated role than having a non-singing/dancing part in a musical. (If his character had a Beatles song, I wonder what it would be? Too bad “Have a Cigar” is Pink Floyd.)

    I liked Across the Universe but I suspect that most of the other critics will trash it, being too cool for school.

    • Todd says:

      On the way home from the movie I horrified my wife by doing my impression of Urbaniak singing “Honey Pie.” Strangely enough, it could have worked.

    • greyaenigma says:

      Baby You’re a Rich Man, perhaps?

      I generally avoid reviews these days. I’ve gradually realized that they’ve only harmed my appreciation of the film. They tend to reaffirm my desire to see it at best, and spoil the plot or over-hype it at worst.

  4. greyaenigma says:

    At first I was going to see this film strictly because of Lord Urbaniak’s presence in it. But then I saw the trailers and I’m afraid the cast has been somewhat displaced in my mind. (However, I, too was disappointed to see that he wasn’t in the trailer.)

  5. moroccomole says:

    Actually, the cut created by the craven, cruel, Mammon-worshipping demon studio executives didn’t test any better than Taymor’s, so they apparently let her have her head on this one.

  6. mr_noy says:

    I haven’t seen ATU yet and will reserve final judgement until I do but I’ve got mixed feelings about what I’ve seen so far. I’m curious but do you think there is anything in this film that would appeal to viewers who didn’t live through that, admittedly, important era?

    I get the impression that the film is a rather self-congratulatory piece of nostalgia. “It was the best of times and the very worst of times but look how young and beautiful and full of hope we were!”

    Furthermore, the story and characters appear to be paper thin, didactic even; forced to conform to pre-determined song lyrics rather than allowed to develop organically. Am I correct in these assumptions or is that just a result of how the film is being marketed? I like The Beatles and I like Taymor and want her to succeed but, to my surprise, the trailer actually made me want to see the film less, not more.

    • Todd says:

      I hated the trailer. I only went because Urbaniak is in it. I stayed because the movie consistently raised, then twisted, then flouted my expectations from beginning to end. It was occasionally infuriating but it was never boring.

      do you think there is anything in this film that would appeal to viewers who didn’t live through that, admittedly, important era?

      On the contrary, I think that the movie works best for people who did not live through the time period (which I am going to say covers from, oh, about spring of 1967 through January of 1970. For people who actually lived through it, it’s a terrible documentary, full of inaccuracies, bizarre connective leaps and outright falsification. But as the evocation of an alarming few years of American history it’s a potent and startling point of departure for further study.

      I get the impression that the film is a rather self-congratulatory piece of nostalgia.

      I can see how the you would get that impression. It is not.

      Furthermore, the story and characters appear to be paper thin, didactic even; forced to conform to pre-determined song lyrics rather than allowed to develop organically.

      The trailer pushes these aspects of the movie, but the Beatles did not write story-telling songs in the Broadway sense and Taymor wisely avoids using them thusly. Many have tried to “bring Beatles songs to life” by shackling them to trite storylines. Taymor does something subtler and more complex, but the marketing people are pushing it like it’s Tommy or something.

  7. urbaniak says:

    Thank you for your kind words. And on my birthday no less. Yes, it is apparently the Julie Taymor cut. A relief to me because I suspect I would not have made the shorter studio version.

  8. r_sikoryak says:

    Glad to hear it! The trailer had me worried.
    (Not worried like the “300” trailer, but worried nonetheless.)

    • Todd says:

      Across the Universe is like 300 — on acid! With James Urbaniak in it!” — Todd Alcott, What Does The Protagonist Want?

      • yetra says:

        hahah, best review ever!

        I, myself, found it to be quite enthralling and interesting. Not a perfect film, but such a pleasure to absorb. With the cherry of mr. urbaniak on top. I do so wish he’d had a song.

  9. I’m glad to hear you think this film is worth viewing. I’ve been looking forward to it since I first saw the trailer at the beginning of summer. Unfortunately, none of the theaters around me have got it yet, so I may have to end up seeing it when I go to Chicago in a couple weekends. Rottentomatoes has it at 48% right now, which is not terrible, but not good, either, so I was getting a bit worried, and I trust this site to tell me whether or not a movie will be worth going to see. As I am a Beatles and musical fan, I will see it regardless.

    • Todd says:

      I was dismayed by the numbers at RT, but then these things must always be analyzed. If you look closely, ATU is one of those movies the critics either love or hate — love it in spite of its flaws or hate it because of them. I happen to fall in the former camp.

      • I figured that would be the case. That’s sort of what I heard with my tied-favorite movie of all time, Moulin Rouge! It got 78% on RT, which is a fresh rating, but of those people who I spoke with about it, there was no mid-ground on opinions of the piece. One critic friend I have hated its guts, but I cannot speak more fondly of it.

        I’m hoping I will be in the group that likes ATU. We shall see…

        • Todd says:

          I personally found Moulin Rouge to be a headache-inducing nightmare, but some of my best friends think of it as one of the greatest movies ever made. Ipso facto, ergo elk.

          • Anonymous says:

            I’m in the headache inducing nightmare camp. Besides the opening sequence, which I found energetic and promising, the rest of the film is trite, sneer worthy drivel.

          • Yeup, see? But don’t get me started. I can duel with the best of them when it comes to defending why I find this movie to be brilliant.

            On another note, Neil Gaiman posted this in his blog and I immediately thought of one of your earlier posts on the subjects of movie pitches:

  10. Anonymous says:

    I’m looking forward to the film, flawed or not. I’d much rather watch personal, visionary miscues than corporate committee formulaic risk aversions.

  11. adam_0oo says:

    Just because you are interested in the effect you have on my personal life, I will let you know that I watched the trailer for this movie and came away annoyed at this hippie dippie, lovey dovey movie about people singing about feelings and touching up on the 60’s and 70’s bullet points. Then I read your review that interested me enough that I now want to go see it. Then I saw the trailer again, which brought up all the old feelings, which led me to conclude that maybe its just not the best trailer.