Studying literature in college, I was always shocked by professors who would tell students a particular interpretation of a poem or novel was “wrong.” Isn’t one of the glorious things about art the fact that readers or listeners can get a personal experience out of it? The fact that Universe director Julie Taymor and writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais predetermined a Jude (and a Lucy, Maxwell, Prudence, Sadie, JoJo, the list goes on) felt intrinsically wrong to me. It felt like a teacher saying, “You can’t relate to ‘Hey Jude.’ It’s about Julian Lennon.”
That was before I saw an early screening of the film.
Universe , I quickly realized, isn’t saying Jim Sturgess’ character is Jude; it’s saying he’s a Jude. The cast’s relaying of Beatles lyrics as their own feelings couldn’t be more literal (the unchanged gender-specific pronouns are even a bit awkward). Taymor isn’t making an end-all, be-all statement about what the songs mean; she’s simply using them to tell a specific (and pretty unoriginal) story. I mean, I doubt “She’s So Heavy” was about the Statue of Liberty, but it is here—and it works.
Plus, every member of the cast can truly sing (Joe Cocker even makes an appearance on “Come Together”; Bono makes a less welcome one for “I Am the Walrus”). And they’ve been handed some of the best songs in rock ’n’ roll history to croon. When Jude begins to fall for Evan Rachel Wood’s Lucy, he jumps right into “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” It’s a personal Beatles fave, and I simply cannot shun it. (It doesn’t hurt that his particular bowling-alley scene finds Taymor’s surrealist art—which could have been a clichéd, The ’60s -meets-Big Fish type of thing—at its best.) Likewise, when Jude’s buddy Max finally sings him some obvious words of advice (“go out and get her,” meaning his sister Lucy) and greets him in NYC with an excited take on Paul McCartney’s classic shouting of “Judy! Judy! Judy! Judy!,” it actually gets you (keep in mind, I’m a sucker and a romantic).
The entire thing is somewhat cheesy, as you’d expect a heartwarming drama-romance to be, but its soundtrack only makes it better. In fact, the movie wouldn’t say anything at all if it weren’t for the Beatles. Yeah, the attempts at sly, music-geeky nods—Sturgess matter-of-factly says, “She came in through the bathroom window” at one point—are over-the-top. But this entire effort is over-the-top, which is why I was able to let go of my ideological complaints and just enjoy it as a movie guided by songs I already love. Considering Taymor makes those songs her movie’s own, I’d be a hypocrite not to.
Across the Universe opens Friday, Sept. 28. Visit acrosstheuniverse.com to view the movie’s trailer.