Julie Taymor’s pet project has endured a troubled journey. For a time, she publicly disavowed the musical after Revolution Studios exec Joe Roth screened a recut version without her permission. Taymor’s version, albeit trimmed by four minutes, is the one that will hit theaters, and at over two hours it still struggles to develop a cohesive plot between the 33 re-envisioned Beatles tunes comprising its soundtrack.
That soundtrack is the overwhelming priority of Universe, one occasionally punctuated by messy plot progression. As a narrative, the film disappoints, especially since cowriters Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais penned the outstanding adaptation of Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments. In the tumultuous late 60s, a below-average love story unfolds in which the beige worlds of a Liverpool dockworker and a New England prom queen converge in the Technicolor Greenwich Village. Lead lovers Jude and Lucy (Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood) are a bore, and their flaccid chemistry just may ruin a few Beatles classics (I’ll miss thee, “Something”) for viewers.
Yet visually and aurally, Taymor makes bold and interesting choices. The stage-like set design is organically bizarre, although too often disturbed by “psychedelic” effects which only serve to clutter and distract. Many of the songs were not, as is standard, prerecorded for the actors to lip sync over. Instead the supporting ensemble of unknowns (many of whom shine through underwritten roles) sing live in most scenes, a revelation for the musical genre. The cameos are a pleasant surprise as well: Bono manages to stifle his gargantuan persona as psychedelic guru Dr. Robert, and Eddie Izzard delivers per usual as his mentor, Mr. Kite.
Taymor’s effort is admirable, but she seems more concerned with tampering with The Beatles’ oeuvre than telling a story. Despite her ability as a director, Universe never rises above the quality of an overindulgent art film with an oversized budget.