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I do my best to keep track of all movies related some way or other to psychedelic culture, but it may be a while before I get around to actually watching them. I recall Across The Universe getting some enthusiastic support in mainstream media, but as often with recent films, I have a hard time seeing where that praise is coming from, unless cute charm and good music satisfies your cineast demands.
As the very familiar storyline took yet another predictable turn, I found myself thinking "this is pretty lame but I bet the original stage version was enjoyable". Uh-huh. Except that there is no "original stage version"! Of course, this adds more weight to my brooding over why someone felt this Broadway musical material could and should be turned into a movie.
Across The Universe presents a by-the-numbers version of "the sixties" that is completely shallow and lacking in critical perspective. The most important event of the decade, the Moon Landing, isn't even mentioned. Instead it's the same tired baby-boomer nostalgia cliches found in another sanitized no-depth retro view, Forrest Gump, except missing the one thing in Gump that felt like it actually meant something, Gary Sinise's character. Across The Universe offers something else, which is the great music of the Beatles. Some 30 Beatles songs (licenced for the bizarre sum of $10 million) are heard and seen, sung by the actors and choreographed in a very Broadway way by the director.
The unoriginal love and friendship story has been augmented with various subplots in order to justify the insertion of various Beatles songs. Turning "I Want To Hold Your Hand" into a song about secret lesbian love is inspired, as were a couple other numbers that brought out novel meanings from very familiar lyrics. Others are too obvious, a few are misguided or meaningless (Eddie Izzard's atonal Mr Kite routine probably survived in the cutting room simply because a lot of masks and props had gone into it).
The "psychedelic" scenes, then, are wildly uneven. It kicks off with a Kool-Aid party in NYC (oddly for a "sixties" film, there is nothing west coast) where a drug ringleader called Dr Robert takes command. After forcing myself to accept that this character for some reason looks like Lemmy in Motorhead, I progress head first into a brick wall for which there is no accepting. Dr Robert is Bono. It's fucking Bono pretending to be a Merry Prankster looking like Lemmy. But Bono isn't psychedelic, he's like the antidote to LSD. No one likes Bono except maybe Jann Wenner. Where did this idiot casting idea come from?
The obligatory "trip" sequence that follows is cheaply done, mainly by inverting and fiddling with colors, just like Bob Rafelson did in Head... 40 years ago. This goes on for a few minutes and at least we are spared any moralizing. An utterly silly scene has Prankster Bono (aargh!) trying to visit "Professor Geary" at a Millbrook-like place but getting rejected--restating Tom Wolfe's old Baby-boomer myth. That this never happened, that Kesey and Leary hung out, and that there are photos of Leary aboard the Further bus, apparently wasn't known to the writers. Of course, since we never see Leary or Geary the whole scene is meaningless and could have been cut, saving us 20 seconds of Bono. Better yet, the editorial scissors could have made a long jump forward and removed the aforementioned Mr Kite scene, which comes right after. That would have brought us quick to the one stoned scene that works, a beautiful montage of bodies entwined in a pasture, where "Because" is heard while the wind runs back and forth in the tallgrass.
And so ends the psychedelic part of Across The Universe, and the rest of it is some more shit about SDS demonstrations and betrayed idealism right out of Forrest Gump, and also a sub-plot about Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in the same band... or something. Don't watch this if you're interested in the 1960s. Watch this if you loved Mama Mia, the musical made from ABBA songs. 5/10