Across the Universe (2007)
Screenplay by Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais, story by Julie Taymor & Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais
Directed by Julie Taymor
Produced by Gross Entertainment/ Team Todd/ Revolution Studios
Running time: 133 minutes
So, What’s This About?
Expressing themselves through the songs of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, two lovers are introduced on opposite shores of the Atlantic. Jude (Jim Sturgess) works in a Liverpool shipyard, while in the Midwest, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) lives an idyllic suburban life. Jude leaves his girlfriend in 1963 and travels to America, while Lucy says goodbye to her high school beau when he joins the army. Jude makes his way to Princeton University, where he locates his biological father working as a janitor. He then meets an irascible Ivy Leaguer named Max (Joe Anderson) who brings the British sketch artist home for Thanksgiving, introducing Jude to his sister Lucy.
Max drops out of school and heads to New York’s Lower East Side with Jude in tow. The young bohemians find room and board with a blues singer named Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and are soon joined by a guitar player from Detroit named Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy) and an outcast from Ohio, Prudence (T.V. Carpio). Arriving in the Big Apple to deliver a draft notice to her brother, Lucy falls in love with Jude. When Max is shipped to Vietnam, she becomes active in the antiwar movement, which Jude — an illegal alien — remains largely ambivalent about. The gang encounters a West Coast beatnik named Dr. Robert (Bono) who expands their minds, but social forces begin to tear the group apart.
Who Made It?
Producer Matthew Gross and his associate Ben Haber were discussing the music of The Beatles and wondered why nobody had mined the riches of the greatest pop music library of all time for a movie. Working out a deal with Sony/ATV Music Publishing — rights holders of the Beatles catalog owned jointly by Sony and Michael Jackson — Gross planned to option the rights for 18 Beatles tunes to the tune of $5 million. To script an original musical utilizing those songs and a 1960s love story as a backdrop, the producer turned to the British writing duo of Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais, who drafted a short treatment.
After several rejections of what was then titled All You Need Is Love, Gross found a partner in Joe Roth of Revolution Studios. To direct, Roth suggested Julie Taymor, the multi-talented director of stage (The Lion King) and screen (Frida). Eager to explore a cultural landscape she had actually grown up in, Taymor turned to partner and frequent collaborator Elliot Goldenthal to compose the music. She arrived on the title Across the Universe and won the backing for a visionary rock opera utilizing music and lyrics from 33 Beatles tunes. Delivering a cut deemed too long and unwieldy by Sony Pictures, Roth would recut the film himself, leading to Taymor threatening to remove her name from the ambitious project.
How’d They Do It?
Apple Corps — the multimedia company founded by The Beatles in 1968 — controls the band’s recordings, but the more lucrative publishing rights to most of that library was owned jointly by Michael Jackson, who bought the Beatles catalogue from ATV Music in 1985, and Sony Music, which the pop icon merged his publishing interests with ten years later. With a licensing fee of $250,000 per song, Beatles compositions had popped up in movies only sparingly over the years. Producer Matthew Gross learned that licensing 18 Beatles songs would cost $5 million, which he thought was a good investment to build a movie around. “The idea was reverse engineering. Instead of trying to string together a story from the songs, create a story and find the songs that suited the story.”
Formerly president of Kopelson Entertainment, Gross hooked the British screenwriting tandem of Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais — whose credits included The Commitments (1991), as well as the Michael Caine comedy Water (1985), which George Harrison’s HandMade Films had produced — to write a treatment. After five rejections, Gross found a buyer in Joe Roth, former chairman of Fox who founded Revolution Studios in 2000. Roth recalled, “The Beatles catalogue is owned by two parties equally, Sony and Michael Jackson. We distribute our films through Sony and I went to them with the idea, so they were okay and we worked long and hard at a time when Michael Jackson was somewhat vulnerable and we got the rights.”
To direct, Joe Roth wooed Julie Taymor, who he’d met while chairman of Walt Disney Pictures and Taymor was directing and designing costumes for the Broadway production of The Lion King. Taymor grew up in Boston in the 1960s. Her love of theater and travel led to creating a dance company while living in Indonesia in the mid 1970s on a Watson Fellowship. In 1991, Taymor received a MacArthur Fellowship and the following year, directed her first opera, in Japan. Following the massive stage success of The Lion King, Taymor made her feature film debut in 1999 with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. Her sophomore film — Frida (2002) — notched Salma Hayek an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
In February 2005, it was announced that Julie Taymor had agreed to direct what was then being called All You Need Is Love for Revolution Studios and a planned release of September 2006. Six months prior, Taymor had approached the head of Sony Classical about the possibility of launching a Broadway musical utilizing tunes by the Fab Four. The idea dissolved, but with The Beatles on her brain and the opportunity to recreate an era she had actually lived through, Taymor worked with Clement & La Frenais to expand their less than novel love story set during the social upheaval of the 1960s. She would suggest the title Across the Universe and add three supporting characters: Sadie, Jo-Jo and Prudence.
Taymor revealed, “The picking of the names was a bit of a debate — the Jude, Lucy, Max, Sadie, Jo-Jo and Prudence — but I felt that, you know, you can like it or dislike it but it allowed us to use some of those songs with the names, obviously, like ‘Dear Prudence’ and ‘Hey Jude’, and later you have ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ but it connected the people to the songs, otherwise, who were those people? If you used those names and those songs, who are they singing about? So no, we don’t have a song about Jo-Jo or Sadie, we are familiar with the words ‘sexy Sadie’ and what do we have, ‘Maxwell’s silver hammer comes down, crashing down’ in the later song, so people who know those songs understand where the references come from.”
Jennifer and Suzanne Todd — who rose from assistants of Joel Silver in the early ‘90s to producing the Austin Powers comedies, Boiler Room and Memento — were brought in to get the movie made. Jennifer Todd recalled, “We got the script from Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and we just loved it. Once the permission came through to use the songs from The Beatles’ back catalog, it was incredibly exciting. We got to take these tracks that have become so much a part of everyone’s lives and reinterpret them — to have them lead a narrative and really breathe new life into them. To be able to work with a director of Julie Taymor’s talent, to really experiment and try to create a totally new experience, I mean, what could be more thrilling?”
To collaborate on Across the Universe, Taymor turned to her partner Elliot Goldenthal, who in addition to writing a film score, was tasked with rearranging the 33 Beatles compositions Taymor had selected. “Though Elliot is a composer and there are no songs to be composed, his arrangements and his understanding of drama and character are so great. I’ve worked with him for 20 years and have total trust and admiration for his work. I knew that he would find a new way to interpret the songs; by placing them with new arrangements, the music would be fresh again — not a better version, but different.” Music producers T-Bone Burnett and Teese Gohl would work with Goldenthal on the music.
Bruno Delbonnel was hired as director of photography. Taymor recalled, “Bruno, in our first interview said, ‘I hate musicals.’ I thought, ‘Now what do I think about that? That’s interesting.’ And I thought, he’s done Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, these incredibly theatrical movies. He has an incredible sense of light and photography. I knew that tough, European sense with him: he would want it to be a serious movie, not fluff; that the darkness would be there when I wanted it to be there, but it would also have that whimsy and theatricality that was very important.” Choreographer Daniel Ezralow came aboard to create routines that broke with the dance musical norm when possible and drew inspiration from more realistic movements.
Aside from Evan Rachel Wood — who was offered the role of Lucy — the cast was filled with relative unknowns. During an open casting call in England, Taymor and Goldenthal were sent a tape featuring Jim Sturgess. Taymor mused, “We did not want musical theater voices, and we didn’t want pop-y voices. Jim just fit in right away. Jim’s been in a rock band and he’s an actor. He just sings with such an incredible ease that you feel that the character is talking just to you. He has a beautiful voice – and there’s no disconnect between when his speaking voice and his singing voice. Jim can go right from talking to singing.”
English actor Joe Anderson had came to an open casting call for the role of Jude, but felt better suited for Max and employing an American accent, won the part. Taymor had created the part of Sadie specifically for Dana Fuchs, a singer/songwriter who’d recorded a demo for the director on a previous project. Martin Luther was a New York based vocalist and guitar player with little acting experience. The same went for T.V. Carpio, whose background included singing, dancing and ice skating, but not much acting. Revolution Studios announced a $45 million budget and Across the Universe commenced filming September 2005 in New York.
Once Across the Universe began the test screening process, its troubles began. In an article for L.A. Weekly in April 2007, gossip columnist Nikki Finke named various “insiders” who claimed that most everyone with an opinion agreed that the movie was too long, everyone except for Julie Taymor. The director unveiled a shorter cut of 135 minutes, but when it received similar complaints, Taymor blanched at any more trims, even after Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal was said to have taken Taymor to dinner and extolled the virtues of a shorter running time. One of Finke’s “sources” was quoted as saying, “That’s the refrain of everyone: There’s a great movie in there, somewhere. But as it stands now, it’s so complicated it’s just a bad movie.”
Joe Roth hired an editor and whittled Taymor’s cut to 105 minutes. Screening his abridged version to a test audience in Phoenix, the scores reportedly shot way up. Roth — who in addition to running studios, directed Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise (1987) and Christmas with the Cranks (2004) — left it up to Taymor to decide whether she would endorse the new audience friendly version. When Taymor floated maybe taking her name off the film, Sony backed down. Recounting the experience on The Charlie Rose Show, Taymor offered, “Look, I went through what many directors go through, which is: You get to the end, you think it’s done and some people think that it should be, slightly different.” She added, “And I did some cuts for pacing and everything stayed — you’re seeing my cut — and there’s support behind it. So, end of story.”
Running 133 minutes, Across the Universe premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2007. Sony timidly released it on 24 U.S. screens in 12 cities, followed by a slow expansion to 400 screens in 24 cities. Critics scattered in every direction. Stephen Holden, The New York Times: “Somewhere around its midpoint, Across the Universe captured my heart, and I realized that falling in love with a movie is like falling in love with another person. Imperfections, however glaring, become endearing quirks once you’ve tumbled.” Marjorie Baumgarten, The Austin Chronicle: “Across the Universe will have ardent defenders, but in the long run, it will do nothing to infuse life into the current mini-revival of movie musicals and is as soft-headed as the wishful refrain ‘All You Need Is Love.’ Maybe that works in real life but not in the movies, sister.”
Despite striking a chord with many who discovered the film — and The Beatles — on their own, Across the Universe failed to take off at the box office, bringing in $24.3 million in the U.S. and only $5 million overseas. Appearing on The Charlie Rose Show in October 2007, Taymor was asked to comment on her film’s wildly diverse reception. “I think anything that’s really different, that really takes chances, that breaks the rules, also plays with sacred cows — like the Beatles music — is going to, it’s going to engender that debate. And I welcome that; better than bland, better than, ‘Wow, that’s nice.’”
Should I Care?
Across the Universe is that weird kid taking a seat at the back of the class. She’ll discover Brazil, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fight Club and other like-minded kids to smoke with behind the school during lunch, inspiring walkouts and love-ins among moviegoers over the years while giving film studios and their shareholders anxiety attacks. Shooting straight from the heart, this love letter to the songs of The Beatles — like the boldest love letters — is ill-advised, occasionally tedious and monumentally dazzling. Its closest point of comparison is Moulin Rouge!, but with much better taste and less cornball reverence for song and dance routine than Baz Luhrmann, Julie Taymor crafts a poetic and sumptuous rock opera destined to become a classic.
Whatever you think about Across the Universe, chances are, you’ll end up thinking about it. Rather than a recyclable consumer entertainment product, almost every frame of the movie is designed with TLC. The framing, lighting and camera movement are beautiful, the musical arrangements eclectic, vocal work by the cast excellent, animation mesmerizing and its staging innovative. The film flies off the rails during its psychedelic, “I Am the Walrus” and “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” numbers, while its star crossed lovers start resembling chess pieces being moved across history rather than people we really care about. But if Luhrmann was heralded for raising the bar on movie musicals, Taymor elevates it even higher with the singular drive to try something different.
Where’d You Get All of This?
“Movie Mogul Joe Roth Speaks” By Wilson Morales. BlackFilm.com, February 2006
“Film Has Two Versions; Only One Is Julie Taymor’s” By Sharon Waxman. The New York Times, 20 March 2007
“Across an Alternate Universe” By Nikki Finke. L.A. Weekly, 12 April 2007
“Sony exploits its Beatles catalog” By Martin Lewis. Variety, 6 September 2007
“Julie Taymor Soars Across the Universe” By Edward Douglas. ComingSoon.net, 18 September 2007
“Beatles mania strikes again” By Chris Lee. The Los Angeles Times, 12 October 2007
“Jennifer and Suzanne Todd’s Sister Act” By Jessica Hundley. MovieMaker Magazine, 18 November 2007
“The Art of Musicals: Across the Universe” The Writing Studio
Across the Universe. DVD commentary by Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal. Sony Home Entertainment (2008)