After Hair, Hairspray, and the mass marketing of tie-dye, can the ’60s be shrunk to fit any further? Yes, indeed, here comes Julie Taymor to run the revolutions of sex, class, and race through the PG-13 sieve. Not that one turns to musicals for deep thought, but John Waters understood that the movements of this transgressively utopian moment were R-rated, at least until some of them—black power, the Weather Underground—fell off a cliff into cut-rate noir. Across the Universe, which filters the cultural revolt through a blizzard of early Beatles songs, ends up both reductive and smugly condescending to a presumptively know-nothing audience.
Taymor, queen of the high-concept arty spectacle, has always been a nervous popularizer, which may be why, in order to get down with the people, she’s teamed up here with the happily vulgarian British writing duo of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who phone in a sloganeering screenplay that culls every tired buzz word in the countercultural dictionary, man. The story turns on a blossoming love affair between Jude (Jim Sturgess), a sweet-faced Liverpool dockyard worker who arrives on an American campus to find the G.I. father who abandoned him after World War II, and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), a sweet-faced, affluent co-ed fresh from the high-school prom. Micro-macro, macro-micro: With Lucy’s hunky fiancé neatly consigned to an army body bag, the two innocents from across the class divide feed and water their love as they’re swept into snapshots of seismic social change, from New York to California, with a brief and bemusing stopover in India.
You say you want a sexual revolution? Well, I wanna hold your lesbian hand. Student revolt, anyone? They get by with a little help from their friends, in a horribly choreographed twirl around campus. Vietnam? Here comes Uncle Sam, leaping out of his recruitment poster to spit out a few threatening bars of “I Want You.” Times of trouble? Let it be— and so on and on, as Jude and Lucy, guided by capering gurus (Bono, Joe Cocker, and Eddie Izzard, all smirking), climb dutifully up the peak of infinite possibility, only to march grimly down the hill of disillusion and despair when it all falls apart.
Expository Taymorish spectacles lurk at every turn—lest we not get the travesty of Vietnam, Lucy’s conscripted brother Max (played by Brit Joe Anderson) actually lugs a Statue of Liberty though napalmed fields. In a lonely gesture at spontaneity, the main characters sing their own numbers. But it’s a stretch to hinge the era entirely on Beatles songs, especially when the selection is Beatles-nice rather than Beatles-naughty. The ’60s were a mess of disparate but loosely connected movements, each with its own nexus of idealism and hubris. But Taylor wants a tidy, bushy-tailed finale, and so, hey Jude, all you need is love.
Except that: We need much more, so rent the best account I’ve seen of the hopes and fears of that twitchy, narcissistic, wonderfully high-minded time—Alain Tanner’s quiet little 1976 Swiss movie Jonah, Who Will be 25 in the year 2000, whose disappointed hippies pin their hopes for the future on a little boy born into their failed commune. Wherever he is, Jonah has hit 32, and if he’s not selling roach clips on Telegraph Avenue or something ineffably sad like that, I like to think he’s joined the Greens, thus ensuring that his parents’ great adventure will not, as it were, have gone to pot.