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 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.
A film like 'Across the Universe' demands to be seen in high-def. Regardless of its flaws, it's a singular visual achievement, and this Blu-ray is pure eye candy. Sony offers a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that met my expectations, which is no small compliment, as I had set them pretty high for this one.
There is virtually nothing to complain about here. The source is pristine, as you would expect from a new release, with slight grain keeping the image film-like yet still slick. Colors are vibrant and lush, though at appropriate moments (largely the dour "real world" early scenes) they are kept more natural and subdued. The hues are rendered with precision throughout, with no chroma noise and great clarity and consistency. In terms of detail and apparent depth, this ranks among the best Blu-ray transfers I've seen, with moments of eye-popping three-dimensionality that easily rate as demo material. This is also a clean encode, with no obvious artifacts such as banding or macroblocking.
Alas, I did say that there was "virtually" nothing to complain about. I was however disappointed by a distracting level of jaggies and shimmering on movement, with edges a bit too pronounced throughout. I wish the transfer was absolutely free of such a brittle cast, and that some false sharpness had been sacrificed to retain the film-like smoothness I enjoyed in the theater. Otherwise, 'Across the Universe' is first-rate.
As brilliant as the visuals of 'Across the Universe' are, they'd be nothing without the music. Thankfully, Sony has delivered the goods with a powerful Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (at a hefty 48kHz/24-bit) that easily handles the bombastic material. (Note: The disc's Audio menu does not list audio formats for any of the included mixes. The actual configurations on the disc are English DolbyTrueHD 5.1 Surround [not the PCM originally announced] and Spanish and Portuguese dubs in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround.)
The filmmakers spent months perfecting the soundtrack in the studio, and it shows -- there is not a single note out of place. Dynamic range is wonderfully expansive, so the highs ring with a bell-like clarity, while low end pounds out the bass when needed. Though a song-driven film, there are enough extended dialogue sequences that the words really do matter and they are very well balanced in the mix. 'Across the Universe' is a film that should be played loud for the best effect, but I was pleased with the sound, even at a quieter level.
My only slight disappointment is the lack of a surround wallop. I desperately wanted to be hit over the head with a sonic hammer, but the rear channels were just too reserved at times. There are plenty of discrete effects (all nicely dispersed) and the music bleeds to good effect, but it's not an overwhelming wall of sound -- for all of Julie Taymor's alleged visual excesses, it's too bad the film's sound designers didn't go for it as well. As it stands, 'Across the Universe' sounds mighty fine, but it’s just shy of reference-standard.
Sony has not skimped on a comprehensive supplement package. All of the video-based supplements are presented in full 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 -- it all looks great on Blu-ray. (Note: Subtitles on the featurette material include Spanish, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, and Thai, while the audio commentary has Korean subtitles only. Oddly, there are no English or French options on any of the extras.)
'Across the Universe' is a visually spectacular film, and its parade of classic Beatles tunes makes for a can't miss soundtrack. Unfortunately, Julie Taymor's love for spectacle overwhelms the thin story, and some of the interpretations of the songs leave something to be desired. This Blu-ray is an unqualified winner, however, with great video and audio and tons of content-rich supplements. If you're a fan of the film, then absolutely rush out and buy this disc. If you're merely curious, it's definitely worth a rental.