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Across the Universe is a stunningly well-crafted work of art, but its somber, melancholy storyline takes the joy and exuberance out of many of the Beatles’ greatest hits.

Beatlemania

Taken individually, each one is a fantastic piece of artistic expression
Taken individually, each one is a fantastic piece of artistic expression

Jude’s a young Liverpudlian who yearns to cross the pond and find his estranged father, who’s working at Princeton University. You can bet he wants to take his sad song and make it better. After a night of close dancing with his girlfriend at the Cavern Club on Mathew Street, he’s off on his journey.

Stateside, Lucy’s a girl with kaleidoscope eyes and she wants to be taken away in a newspaper taxi. Her boyfriend’s been sent to fight in Vietnam; feeling lost and in need of new sensations, she follows her brother, Max, to New York City, where eye-opening sights and mind-bending people await.

As the stories of these three souls collide, they meet many characters with names plucked from Beatles songs. There’s Prudence, a lovelorn lesbian; Mr. Kite, a psychedelic circus ringleader; Dr. Robert, a transcendental philosopher; Sadie, a sexy singer who seems to be channeling Janis Joplin; and Jo-Jo, a Jimi Hendrix-like guitarist. Yeah, the gang’s all here, baby!

Their tale plays like something along the lines of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! on downers. It’s the 1960s and these kids need a fix ‘cause they’re goin’ down. Mother Superior jumped the gun and now they’re hoping to work it out on the long and winding road.

If you read the news today, oh boy, you’ll realize it’s a familiar refrain, which is no doubt director Julie Taymor’s point.

Rubber Soul

As with Moulin Rouge!, the stars do their own singing — and they do it quite well. Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen) is perfectly cast as Lucy. The same can be said of Jim Sturgess; he’s a relative newcomer to the big screen who’ll co-star with Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson in The Other Boleyn Girl next year. Somewhat ironically, Sturgess’ singing voice is amazingly reminiscent of Ewan McGregor’s in Moulin Rouge!. These rising stars get a little help from some big time friends. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite is brought to life by Eddie Izzard, the multi-talented star of stage and screen. Salma Hayek, who starred in Taymor’s Frida, makes a cameo as a mucho, mucho sexy nurse during Happiness Is a Warm Gun. Music legend Joe Cocker offers up one of the movie’s best covers with Come Together; during the course of the song he appears as a beggar, a pimp, and a busker.

But the biggest cameo belongs to Bono. U2’s front man is Dr. Robert and, as the eponymous titled song goes, “he helps you to understand, he does everything he can… he’s a man you must believe.” A hippie transcendentalist, Dr. Robert’s got his own following and he’s on a cross-country book signing tour, with the ultimate destination being a visit with a like-minded quack named “Dr. Geary.”

Dr. Robert’s book is called I Am the Walrus. You get precisely one — and only one — guess as to which song Bono sings.

A Hard Day’s Night

As can be expected from Taymor, who also directed the equally lush movie Titus and artfully brought Disney’s The Lion King to Broadway, Across the Universe is visually spectacular. Thanks to Taymor’s artistic acumen, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography, and Daniel Ezralow’s choreography, the movie’s an eye-pleaser even during its very worst moments.

While setting the stage, Taymor starts things off on a high note with happy versions of Hold Me Tight and All My Loving, eventually leading to a giddy version of I’ve Just Seen a Face, set in a bowling alley. Those sequences express the joy of music and life. There’s also a great version of I Want to Hold Your Hand, set during a high school football practice.

The trouble is, from those early high points, too many of the songs get toned down and put in a dour context. With war and racial tensions as the backdrop, a gospel version of Let It Be becomes a highlight, while Strawberry Fields Forever gets stretched too far amidst Jude’s lovelorn heartbreak and Max’s nightmarish tour of Vietnam.

Even Revolution, which should be a raucous barnstormer no matter the circumstances, is given a subdued - almost lifeless - touch as a quarrel between Jude, Lucy and her war-protesting activist friends.

Granted, almost by definition a great rock song can be reinterpreted with different tones and it can take on an almost entirely different meaning simply by going from amped-up rock to more intimate acoustic arrangements. In that respect, the songs work fine. But more than two hours of darker-hued Beatles begins to take its toll on the psyche.

For all the angst these kids carry, one’s gotta hope for the sun, as in Here Comes the Sun. But that sun never rises. Perhaps Taymor wrote that one off as too easy or too obvious.

Help!

Those observations regarding the songs all come with one major caveat: taken individually, each one is a fantastic piece of artistic expression. In that regard, among the best is I Want You, which moves from fantastical animated Uncle Sam “I WANT YOU” posters pointing down at poor, poor Max, that man on the run, to an amazing sequence of events as he goes through an interview, a physical, and finally gets suited up in army fatigues. And by far the trippiest of the bunch is the previously mentioned I Am the Walrus, which goes into full-blown psychedelia.

Nonetheless, as a retrospective of the Beatles’ work and impact on the world, the Cirque du Soleil show currently running exclusively at The Mirage is a better showcase. That show, called The Beatles: Love, serves as a quasi-biographical history of the band and it’s the next best thing to seeing the Fab Four live. Love revels in the glorious energy all the songs in the Beatles catalog can provide and it is an exhilarating experience.

That’s not to say Taymor doesn’t lighten up on occasion and make room for some fun as well. Jude’s an artist and he creates the logo for Sadie’s record label, Strawberry Jams, cutely playing off the Beatles’ Apple label. Near the finale, there’s also a rooftop concert (complete with Persian rugs, featuring the songs Don’t Let Me Down and All You Need is Love) mirroring the Beatles’ legendary London rooftop gig.

While those winks and nudges prop up the smile quotient, the movie’s simple story of star-crossed lovers in a time of war is too superficial to carry the action along between the musical numbers. As a result, the songs feel more like music video vignettes rather than a part of a fully-integrated musical experience.

For all its artistic grandeur and ambitions — and this is one truly ambitious movie — it’s almost regrettable to say Across the Universe falls short of being a full-blown masterpiece.