Across the Universe, from director Julie Taymor, is a revolutionary rock musical that re-imagines America in the turbulent late-1960s, a time when battle lines were being drawn at home and abroad. When young dockworker Jude (Jim Sturgess) leaves Liverpool to find his estranged father in America, he is swept up by the waves of change that are re-shaping the nation. Jude falls in love with Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a rich but sheltered American girl who joins the growing anti-war movement in New York's Greenwich Village. As the body count in Vietnam rises, political tensions at home spiral out of control and the star-crossed lovers find themselves in a psychedelic world gone mad. With a cameo by Bono, Across the Universe is "the kind of movie you watch again, like listening to a favorite album." (Roger Ebert, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES).
There comes a moment in the life span of every classic band when it's no longer about the Music, but the Commodity. For the Beatles, that moment probably came with Beatlemania!, the inexplicably popular stage phenomenon of the early '80s. Millions paid for tickets to see a group of John, Paul, George and Ringo imposters miming to the music of the band, complete with wired-on mop-tops and cheesy theatrical staging. It was shallow, silly and reeked of desperate nostalgia, but if it proved nothing else, it was that the music of The Beatles has proved so defining to the entire human race that a group of facsimiles had become just as good (or at least as marketable) as the real thing.
Like any good Product, of course, the capitalization of the Beatles brand hasn't stopped in the intervening years. Like some sort of demented Liverpudian Chia Pet, it seemed as if all you needed to do was just add a little Yellow Submarine-flavored water and voila!, up would sprout a new, officially-licensed Beatles tentacle, from the endless parade of best-of and box-set re-issues to the recent Cirque du Soleil stage re-invention, 'Love.' It was enough to make one wonder of the remaining Beatles' continued professed resistance to "selling out" their back catalogue, as all Paul, Ringo, John (as represented by Yoko Ono) and the late George Harrison seemed to do over the past couple of decades is run a licensing empire.
So the arrival of 'The Beatles: The Movie!', aka, Across the Universe, should come as no surprise. Directed by Julie Taymor, it's an inspired gambit to synergize the Beatles music with the big screen in a way that hasn't been done since, well, the Fab Four's own classic rock musicals Help! and A Hard Day's Night revolutionized the language of cinema back in the '60s. Take a cross-section of two dozen or so classic Beatles tunes ("Let It Be!", "Helter Skelter!", "Happiness is a Warm Gun!"), graft it onto a Time-Life Books-condensed version of '60s history, populate it with a "hip" cast of both new and established names (Evan Rachel Wood, Bono, Salma Hayek, Eddie Izzard, etc.), and then run it all through a schmaltzy Broadway blender designed to offend neither the sensibilities of High School Musical - loving tweens or their parents. A three-headed hydra of a post-modern behemoth, 'Across the Universe' has the chutzpah to milk the pocketbooks of every generation (hey, why aim low when it's the Beatles?), and damn if the whole crazy thing doesn't almost pull it all off.
With two feature films (Frida and Titus) and the acclaimed Broadway staging of The Lion King under her belt, Taymor has quickly become known as one of Hollywood's reigning visual stylists. Perhaps second only to Moulin Rouge!'s Baz Luhrmann, she knows how to bring the bravura excesses of the Broadway stage to the big screen, without being confined by them. Across the Universe works non-stop to stimulate our senses, with Taymor using every trick at her disposal -- colors pulse, the music pounds, and images of majesty and beauty swirl across the screen at such a whirlwind pace, that for once, the phrase "cinematic kaleidoscope" is not hyperbole. Taymor's cinematic acumen is utterly fascinating, and at times it approaches the transcendent.
Unfortunately, story seems to take a backseat to style. Well-known songs, nostalgic ‘60s references, and thinly-sketched characters make the film big on spectacle but short on emotional engagement (or even coherent storytelling). Taymor and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais make only the most obvious connections between the Beatles' musical themes and the film's story -- the pastiche is so literal that it borders on camp. '60s counterculture is depicted as something out of a TV miniseries, with hordes of extras in leftover 'Hair' costumes dancing around in front of candy-colored sets, while Vietnam earns only two-and-a-half montages worth of screen time. Don't expect subtext behind the strawberries bleeding down the walls during "Strawberry Fields Forever," or in the events that befall characters named Jude, Maxwell, Lucy, and Mr. Kite -- it's all pure visceral impact, with every choice made solely to invoke (and stroke) our nostalgia. Still, this is no disaster on the level of a 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' (the little-remembered 1978 celluloid travesty that -- no joke -- saw the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton attempting to reinterpret the Beatles as rock-disco), but it's not the phantasmagorical masterpiece that it could have been.
The film’s soundtrack is also a disappointment. The group sing-a-long of "With a Little Help From My Friends" has a joyous, youthful exuberance, while"I Wanna Hold Your Hand" is radically re-worked into a melancholy ballad (one of the film's few strokes of musical ingenuity), but as for the rest, it's a bad night at the karaoke bar. The pure Broadway kitsch of "Strawberry Fields Forever" is characteristic of the formless approach to the songs, and other choices are simply head-scratchers, with numbers like the shoulda-been-a-showstopper 'Hey Jude,' fading out midway through, just another of the film's many missed musical opportunities.
Across the Universe's ultimate sin is not it's attempt to cash-in on The Beatles’ back catalog, but rather its fawning inability to convey what the band's music meant to a generation. Taymor's lavish cinematic treatment fails to illuminate what was so special about this band, other than the fact that a lot of people really, really dug their music. As beautiful as it is to look at, and sometimes listen to, Across the Universe seems like a massive fan tribute film, one with zero relevance to its subject.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Across the Universe comes with a dual-layered UHD66 Disc and a Region A locked Blu-ray Disc. There is an insert for a Digital HD copy. The discs are housed in a hard black plastic case with a cardboard sleeve.
Across the Universe comes with a 2160p transfer and is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio. This new 4K master came from the original 35mm negative and looks striking and bold. If you're not a fan of the film itself with its story or characters, it's hard to argue with the amazing cinematography and beautiful visuals throughout the film. Detail and colors have a great upgrade with this 4K UHD transfer and with the added HDR10 option. This film is bright, vibrant and boasts a great artwork of colors from start to finish, ranging from all over the color spectrum. Filters have been applied to several scenes as well that make moments looks warmer or cooler, none of which hinder any detail or black levels.
During the I Want To Hold Your Hand song, the cheerleader outfits showcase vivid greens while the football jerseys are bold yellow. They mix well with the green and yellow grass in the background, which looks decayed. However, both the jerseys and cheerleading uniforms have been boosted in brightness and saturation. When the hippie bus arrives, the colors look astounding with all of the bright primary and pastel colors mixing well with that beautiful 60's era coloring. When the Strawberry Fields song hits, the red color kicks into high gear and you'll be able to distinguish the different red coated strawberries from the red paint being splashed. I was truly impressed.
Detail looks sharp and vivid as well, with smaller details showing up nicely in facial features and wardrobe. Individual hairs in beards and on heads look excellent and distinguished, while heavy makeup blemishes look more vibrant. A perfect example of this is in the Benefit For Mr. Kite scene. Even better details are in the brick buildings and in the riot scene during the song Let It Be, where all of the burned out cars and shops show all of their imperfections. The visual effects never go soft and actually add a bit of computer generated detail in the Uncle Sam animation. Black levels are deep and rich and the skin tones are natural at all times. There are no issues with any banding, aliasing or video noise, leaving this 4K UHD presentation with top marks.
This release includes a very good Dolby Atmos mix where the music is the spotlight of the track. Every piece of re-imagined Beatles' tunes boasts great levels of energy and dynamics that utilize every single speaker. Even some of the height speakers provide some percussion and guitar riffs that fully immerse you into their storied songs. The low end is smooth and brings a great deal of bass in each musical piece. As far as the vocals go in each song, they sound like they've been auto-tuned for sure, but they still come across clear without shrills.
Other sound effects are robust and lively when it counts. During the riots where explosions and gun shots are firing, they emulate from the surrounds with great directionality and pack a decent punch. Other ambient noises of people screaming or talking are consistent and loud, providing some nice depth in this musical soundscape. Dialogue is always cleanly presented and without pops, cracks, and hiss. Across the Universe mixes a stellar music soundtrack along with great sound effects that never drown out one another. The height speakers add a bit of immersion to make this a worthy upgrade in the sound department.
Across the Universe may not be your favorite movie. While you can't argue with Julie Taymor's visual style and ability to tell a story with all of her perfect camera angles and beautiful theatrical colors, the story and characters aren't fleshed out and down right make no sense at times. With fans of the Beatles who know what songs are supposed to mean and be interpreted as, Taymor took the lyrics and made a somewhat cheesy storyline. It's all subjective though. The new 4K UHD presentation is stunning with color and detail and the new Dolby Atmos track adds new levels of sound that fully immerses you. There are no new bonus features, but the prior ones are transported to the Blu-ray version here. Even though you may not like the story, you can't deny the good music and the excellent new look of the video and audio. This is Recommended!
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.