When Tony-winning director Julie Taymor brought Across the Universe to the screen 11 years ago, she put on full display her singular out-of-the-box vision for a movie musical built around the songs of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. “I firmly believe these are not ‘Beatles’ songs that we’re doing,” she told Playbill in a recent interview. “These are great songwriters, composers, lyricists.” And Taymor, along with screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, penned a story by re-imagining the contexts of each song and inventing characters to sing them.
Set in the 1960s against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Across the Universe felt akin to a Hair of the oughts. It earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture Musical or Comedy—though the Globes were canceled that year—and is now considered a cult classic. Which is why Fathom Events revives the film, starring Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess, for a three-day stint in movie theatre across the country July 29–August 1. (Click here for tickets.)
“The experience of Across the Universe in a movie theatre…” Taymor trails off, unable to articulate the fullness of the idea for a moment. “In a musical, you should be with other people there in the space watching it. And the big screen and the wrap-around sound. Go as an event. It’s not replaceable by being in your living room. It works—but it works in a mediocre way.” But Taymor is not one to settle for mediocrity.
Not to mention, “it’s a good time for this movie to reignite people to see what young people’s power is.’”
Here, we spoke to Taymor about crafting the original story, experimenting with cinematic styles, and how she would direct the musical if she ever brought it to the stage:
On creating an original story from the Beatles catalog.
“[Dick and Ian] had a premise of taking those songs during that period and writing this love story about what became Jude and Lucy’s love story. They weren’t called Jude and Lucy [at that point]. But the songs weren’t forwarding the story at the time. When I came on, I said, ‘Let’s start from the song.’ I went and chose 30–33 songs that I felt would be able to—when put into the mouths of lead characters—they would actually be the thoughts, emotions, and words of those actors.”
The movie begins with two couples: Jude and his girlfriend in Liverpool, Lucy and her boyfriend in Midwest America before he ships off to bootcamp and Vietnam. When Jude leaves for America to find his father—a custodian at Princeton—he meets Lucy’s brother Max, who drops out of school. The buddy pair move to New York, into a bohemian apartment where we meet singer Sadie, and, eventually, guitarist Jo-Jo and runaway Prudence.
“It started with these three white young people, and I said, ‘The Beatles were incredibly inspired by African-American music.’ In order to feel right in the ’60s, I needed to add other characters that would fill out the canopy of what it is to be American and also what the sound was of the ’60s. Two iconic figures that were in silence: Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. In creating three more characters—the Jo-Jo character [Jimi] and Sadie [Janis] and Prudence—you could bring in a different sound.
“Prudence, she’s from the Midwest. She’s an Asian American. Her feelings for this young woman disturb her and it’s unrequited. So she runs away and she comes to New York. She finds herself falling in love with Sadie, but it’s not requited again. So [the lyrics] ‘Dear Prudence, why won’t you come out and play?’ She’s in the closet. Literally. It works politically and on an emotional level.” Songs sung by Prudence and around Prudence’s story now become about identity and attraction and confusion.
Taymor also found that by bending songs tonally, she could change the message and make them work for different storylines. “I said, ‘I need a song for the induction of Max into the army.’ So I’m looking at their whole catalog. You come up to something like ‘I Want You’ and instantly you go ‘That’s Uncle Sam’s' motto.’ And then by the end of the number, it’s about desire [like in the original].’ You could take those words ‘I want you’ and have them have so many meanings because there’s only two lines of lyrics in that song.”
“The side love story of Sadie and Jo-Jo and commercializing your work, I think it’s minimal but clear. She’s miserable without him when she goes on tour [without him] and how lonely he is. She was told she could make more money [and] the white band would be better. But the fact is, he was the one Jo-Jo. I never talk about this love story, but I think it is very clear and very common amongst ambitious people.”
As one cogent storyline, Taymor reflects, “There’s an enormous amount of simplicity in the movie with a kind of early Beatles, and then you see this extraordinary transition the Beatles had into the drugs and the psychedelic time, into the revolutionary, anti-war time. And into a kind of understanding. That’s why the last song being ‘All You Need Is Love’ has meaning. Once you’ve gone through the war of emotions.”
On the pillar song of the movie.
Taymor says there is no one song from which the final plot emanated, but ideologically, there is one tune to which Across the Universe seems tethered. “It’s the song that’s not there. ‘And I Love Her’ is a song that Jo-Jo is writing, but it becomes a theme song for Across the Universe. When we do [the scene] mash-up of the Columbia University riots we have three songs: ‘Helter Skelter,’ ‘Across the Universe,’ and a third part to the mash-up, which is the orchestral version of ‘And I Love Her.’ It’s very much a part of the longing and the painful romantic sacrifice. It’s not the song people think of.”
On finding the non-Beatles sound.
“Elliot Goldenthal and T Bone Burnett did the arrangements. They’re arrangements that are appropriate to the emotions and the color of the scene and so you get a different feeling [than the original]. I think [Elliot] really got to the heart of what the song meant for this movie. Like his slowing down ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ or making ‘Blackbird’ so minimalist. He uses the instruments so appropriately for the mood and the storytelling. That makes it an integrated musical.”
Aside from instrumentation, Taymor and the music team’s decisions about who would sing each song—and, therefore, the key—made the songs sound fresh. “The early songs sound like they’re coming from the mouths of young 15-year-old girls. Songs like ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ or ‘All My Loving,’ and ‘Hold Me Tight.’ And those songs coming from female mouths also changes radically from the original.”
On the blend of cinematic styles.
Taymor visualizes her film in three different sections: innocence, reality, reconciliation. She grounds the early part of the film in naturalism, shots of high school dances and college campuses.
“‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ that’s so pure and innocent. It’s like, ‘Let’s go smoke some pot and get high and have fun.’ But then it gets to the point of revolution right next to ‘I Am the Walrus’ where things are veering from extreme frustration and confusion with the draft—with the war.” She begins to push the boundaries with more theatrical numbers like “I Want You” and “Come Together” that feel like a traditional movie musical—big production numbers and jolting choreography.
“When Max goes to be inducted, my designer Mark Friedberg, talked about a meatpacking situation: He’s going to get 1A stamped on his chest like a piece of meat. These boys that have been stripped of their own individuality and become pieces of meat to fight in a war machine. So, it’s a factory [visually]. There’s all these conveyor belts and all those little cubicles. They represent the anonymity of it all.”
“It’s a movie musical. If you look at the great movie musicals of the past, they all go surreal. American in Paris, say. That moment of song is an interior moment, which means you can exteriorize it in surreal and emotional ways that are not ‘naturalistic.’” Taymor pushes the boundaries a step further, using color filters and puppetry and circus.
When they board the bus in the famous “I Am the Walrus,” “they’re looking for Prudence, right? But they’re all on acid. The colors that we put into the bus, and the feeling of flying and floating, that is an emotional resonance.”
“The style of the film is something that you can do in film that you can’t do in theatre. All of the uses of animation and colorplay, in the theatre you would probably do it with pure choreography and lighting. I wanted to do what I thought cinema does best. Music videos are boring to me because they just keep repeating the same thing over and over. But if we could do it in a storytelling way… The lyrics and music forward the concepts that were put into the script. The kinds of visuals that were in that movie, they hadn’t been done before in the natural storyline.”
On the film’s cult classic status.
“We didn’t have Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. You have to remember that—even La La Land—if there weren’t those two movie stars that people feel safe with—and they’re great, wonderful actors—their sheer presence” makes a movie musical more salable. Across the Universe turned out to be niche for a few reasons in Taymor’s mind. “I was allowed to hire six unknown actors to play the leads and we did not advertise anywhere that Bono or Salma Hayek or Joe Cocker were the cameos, because they were just cameos. The other thing you have to remember is if people weren’t Beatles fans, that’s a hard sell. If people are huge Beatles fans, that’s a hard sell. We made these songs literal. If you don’t like that, you won’t like it.”
On bringing Across the Universe to the stage.
There are no plans to bring Across the Universe to Broadway, and though it had been an anticipated stop on the trajectory of the piece when it first debuted as a film in 2007, the jets seemed to have cooled on it. Still, Taymor says, “If I ever did it, I would prefer not to do it on a proscenium. I would like to create it as a more immersive experience and use film and animation in ways that are not like in the movie, but are appropriate for combining three-dimensional experiences. I really would want it to surround and encompass the audience.”