Program Length: 133 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen
Languages: English Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish 5.1
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai
Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letterbox
They tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe
Nothing’s gonna change my world
Nothing’s gonna change my world
On February 4, 2008, at 7:00 p.m. EST, NASA will beam the Beatles song “Across the Universe” to the star Polaris, 431 light years from Earth. The purpose is to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the original recording of the song, as well as the 45th anniversary of The Deep Space Network and the 50th anniversary of NASA. Beatles fans throughout the world will be playing “Across the Universe” simultaneously with the NASA launch. This will mark the first time that a radio song has been beamed into deep space.
It is only fitting, then, that on the day after the NASA launch the ambitious and audacious musical film based upon the music of The Beatles, Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, is being released on Blu-ray and DVD. This film is a remarkable achievement in every sense – visually, musically, and dramatically.
Rather than fit Beatles songs into an existing story, Taymor builds her story around the songs. She wisely avoids the temptation to imitate the Fab Four. Instead, she allows her actor/singers to make the songs their own. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” the first Beatles hit in the United States, becomes a plaintive ballad of longing. “Let it Be,” inspired by a dream which Paul McCartney had about his mother, is now a black gospel song, heartbreakingly sung at the funeral for a young boy.
The film follows two lovers as they try to negotiate the tumultuous times that are the late sixties. Jude (Jim Sturgess), a young Englishman with artistic ability who was raised by a single mother in Liverpool, decides to escape his bleak life by taking a steamer to the United States. Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) is a privileged high school cheerleader in Dayton, Ohio. Their paths cross after Jude befriends Max (Joe Anderson), Lucy’s older brother. They soon find themselves in New York City, where they become immersed in the musical scene and the counterculture movement. The specter of the Vietnam War hung over every young man during that era, and Max is drafted into the Army after losing his student deferment when he drops out of college. As developments over which they have no power take control of their lives, Lucy wants to fight back but Jude is convinced that nothing she can do will really make a difference.
Although virtually every scene is infused with incredible Beatles songs, the visual artistry of Across the Universe is just as striking as the music. The screen bursts with dazzling choreography and mind-blowing psychedelic imagery. The scene of Max’s induction into the Army is positively stunning, as he is quickly transformed from a civilian into an unwilling but ultimately submissive warrior in his country’s campaign to spread democracy. Images of race riots in Detroit and chaotic fighting in Vietnam are graphic reminders of how much upheaval existed in America in those days.
The performances, by a largely unknown cast (all of whom sing their own songs), are uniformly excellent. There is a McCartney-esque quality about Jim Sturgess, who is perfectly cast as Jude. Evan Rachel Wood’s singing is a revelation. Dana Fuchs, a blues singer who never acted before, is superb as Sadie, a character clearly inspired by Janis Joplin. Bono has a cameo appearance as Mr. Roberts and sings “I Am the Walrus” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Eddie Izzard does an amusing turn as Mr. Kite, and Salma Hayek appears as a sexy singing nurse in a fantasy sequence. Joe Cocker also makes an appearance, singing “Come Together.”
Across the Universe sucked me in immediately and never let me go. Like a Beatles album, it can be played over and over again without ever growing old.
The anamorphic widescreen 2.40:1 widescreen transfer is excellent, which is extremely important because this is such a visual film. There is a moderate amount of grain. The colors are for the most part bold and vibrant. One exception is the scenes which take place in Liverpool. They are suitably muted to convey the grime of that working-class factory city. Black levels are excellent and shadow detail is quite good. Digital artifacts are non-existent to my eyes.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is very nice and delivers the soundtrack with plenty of dimensionality and impact. Some viewers have complained that the music does not make much use of the surround channels, but I suspect that this was deliberate. The Beatles songs, after all, were originally recorded when all we had were mono and two-channel stereo. In any event, I found the audio to be very pleasing and totally involving.
The supplemental materials on Across the Universe are plentiful and first-rate.
For openers, there is a commentary track with director Julie Taymor and composer Eliot Goldenthal (who wrote movie’s non-Beatles music). They discuss many of the decisions they had to make regarding which Beatles songs to use and how to use them, and how the lyrics helped to drive the plot of the film.
There is one very brief deleted scene and two amusing alternate takes of Eddie Izzard as Mr. Kite. There are also a number of extended musical scenes which had to be shortened for the final cut of the film. A photo album with more than 100 still images is exclusive to this standard-definition DVD set.
Also included are five superior featurettes. “Creating the Universe” is one of the more involving “making of” featurettes that I have seen. Director Julie Taymor is positively infectious as she relates how she was inspired to create some of the film’s more memorable sequences. She is well-known for her visual talents, and this featurette does an excellent job of showing her creativity at work. “Stars of Tomorrow” is a fascinating look at the actors who play the primary characters in the film. I was struck by the fact that the actors really seem to have enjoyed working with one another, which helps to explain why they have such convincing on-screen chemistry. “All About the Music” is an incisive look at the musical choices which were made and is a must-see for Beatles fans. “Moving Across the Universe” gives viewers an inside look at Daniel Ezralow’s superb choreography for the film. Finally, there is “FX on the Universe,” a look at how the amazing special effects were created by effects supervisor Kyle Cooper.
The two-discs come in a keepcase which in turn has a cardboard outer sleeve. The artwork and liner notes are identical on both the keepcase and the outer sleeve. The outer sleeve has a sticker which notes that the film was nominated for a 2008 Golden Globe for Best Picture in the musical/comedy category.
The Final Analysis
Across the Universe is delight for the senses. It looks great, sounds great, has characters we really care about, and effectively recreates one of the most controversial and interesting periods of 20th Century America. It also is a fitting tribute to some of the finest music to come out of the Rock ‘n’ Roll era. Perhaps the Beatles did not change the world, but they came closer than most.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD10A DVD Player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: February 5, 2008