The genre is known as jukebox musicals, and it has been realized onstage (Jersey Boys) and in film (Moulin Rouge!), but not yet to the extent that Taymor has accomplished here.
The ambitious Across the Universe spans the mid- to late '60s, tracing in dialogue and songs the stories of rich American girl Lucy ("in the sky," etc.), her hippie brother Max ("well's silver hammer"), and the Liverpudlian Jude ("hey!") who comes to the States to search for the father who abandoned his family before Jude was born.
Among the intertwining relationships that revolve around these three people, and their ever-growing group of friends and hangers-on, the film follows the blooming and fading of romances, the birth of the anti-war movement, and adventures in the world of psychedelic drugs.
The 34 Beatles songs that are sung by the actors perfectly aid and abet the narrative. So Max gets through college "With a Little Help From My Friends"; Lucy, wondering about a future with Jude, sings "If I Fell" to herself; Jude, watching Lucy sleep, croons "Something"; cheerleader Prudence, looking longingly at another cheerleader, does a beautiful version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
The script also makes sly, nonmusical references to the songs, such as when Prudence actually comes in through a bathroom window.
Taymor, who has a propensity for wild costuming and weird puppets that goes back to her early TV days in films such as Fool's Fire, goes at it full-throttle here. A huge production number featuring Max being inducted into the army to the song "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" is brimming with creepy masks, big puppets and animation. When Eddie Izzard pops up to sing-speak "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," the film enters full-blown psychedelia territory.
It's here that the film misses as much as it hits. For instance, an imagery-laden sequence featuring an unrecognizable Bono as Dr. Robert, singing a tepid version of "I Am the Walrus" appears to be there only for the sake of Bono's appearance. Yet a totally cool early sequence, with Joe Cocker donning multiple outfits and powerfully croaking out "Come Together" sits nicely within the film's many moods.
Casting choices are mostly on the mark, with an OK -- if somewhat restrained -- performance by Joe Anderson (Becoming Jane) as Max, and strong ones by Evan Rachel Wood (Running With Scissors) as Lucy, and British TV actor Jim Sturgess, doing the lion's share of the singing, as Jude.
Though Beatles songs spin through this, there's no actual mention of the band. But there sure is a major reference, in a rooftop concert featuring "Don't Let Me Down," complete with people in the streets staring upward and cops stopping the show.
It's no surprise that the songs, in these terrifically arranged new versions, are as fresh as ever. Any nostalgia factor remains in the story. (Rated PG-13)