You’d have to be a nostalgic boomer, a hopeless romantic or Paul McCartney to fall completely in love with “Across the Universe” and all its indulgences and idiosyncrasies.
Inspired entirely by Beatles songs, with characters whose names include Lucy, Jude and Jo-Jo, Julie Taymor’s sprawling musical is visually imaginative and often quite bold, as you would expect from the director of the Frida Kahlo biopic “Frida” and “The Lion King” on Broadway.
The actors, who do all their own singing, are certainly up to the challenge, including Evan Rachel Wood (besides Marilyn Manson, who knew she could sing?) and especially charismatic newcomer Jim Sturgess, who resembles a young Paul and whose character hails from — wait for it — Liverpool.
While many of the arrangements are inventive (a lovesick cheerleader’s rendition of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” with football players crashing into each other in slow motion all around her, has an unexpected poignancy), other performances are far too literal. “Strawberry Fields” springs from Jude’s mind as he’s gazing at a bowl of strawberries. Seriously.
It’s an intriguing experiment, though, especially compared with more straightforward recent movie musicals like “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Producers,” but the conceit wears out its welcome after about an hour. By then it’s painfully clear that there is no strong, driving narrative here, only a series of ’60s-era cliches (Vietnam War protests, hallucinogenic drug trips, etc.), tied together by tunes.
The music, which T Bone Burnett co-produced, makes you wish the filmmakers hadn’t bothered with a story at all (the script comes from Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who also wrote “The Commitments,” with Taymor sharing a story-by credit). None of the figures is fleshed out and they all feel like types — though Bono is a hoot in his first film role as an egotistical counterculture leader who sings “I Am the Walrus.”
But Lucy (Wood) and Jude (Sturgess) have a lot of singing of their own to do before they get to him.
“Across the Universe” begins with parallel back stories, as Lucy dances at the prom in suburban Boston with her boyfriend, who’s about to be shipped off to Vietnam, and Jude toils in the shipyards of Liverpool and prepares to travel to the United States. There he hopes to meet the father he never knew — who turns out to be a janitor at Princeton University. But Jude also runs into troublemaker Max (the confident Joe Anderson), a Princeton student who takes a liking to Jude and who happens to be Lucy’s older brother.
In no time the three are wandering the streets of New York’s Greenwich Village, where all the young people are in a constant state of bohemian rhapsody, which often has the sort of plucky, let’s-put-on-a-show vibe you might find in a touring company of “Rent.” Among their new friends are Sadie (Dana Fuchs), a passionate Janis Joplin clone; Jo-Jo (Martin Luther McCoy), a Jimi Hendrix-style singer and guitarist; and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), the former cheerleader.
Naturally, Jude and Lucy fall for each other (and Wood’s version of “If I Fell” allows the poised, versatile young actress to show disarming vulnerability). And naturally, everyone discovers drugs, which gives Taymor a chance to play with the wilder side of her creative nature. Puppets and masks, layer upon layer of texture and animation — all her signature aesthetic stuff, and that’s just during Eddie Izzard’s performance of “The Benefit of Mr. Kite.”
“Frida” star Salma Hayek also makes an amusing cameo as a naughty nurse in “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” with Joe Cocker as a homeless man who helps introduce Jo-Jo during a vampy production of “Come Together.” “I Want You,” with its crisp choreography as newly drafted Army soldiers are stripped down and reinvented, also dazzles.
But too often, it feels like we’re skipping through history, touching down lightly on key moments and cultural phenomena with no fresh insight. It’s highfalutin karaoke with a happy ending.