At its most basic, Across the Universe (2007) is a coming-of-age love story. Young man from Liverpool, England, takes a job on a trans-Atlantic ship, then disappears into the US on arrival. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, find obstacles in their path, are temporarily separated and ultimately reunited. All set to music of the Beatles.
I have to admit up-front that I am an avid Beatles fan. I was in the 6th grade when the Fab Four made their first American tour, so I spent some of my most formative years listening to them, and I am firmly attached to the original versions of all their music. I resisted watching this movie for a long time because I did not think I would like hearing the Beatles’ music performed by the actors. That was a mistake, and if Across the Universe were to return to the theaters, I would go see it on the big screen in a heartbeat.
Across the Universe is anything but a simple movie. The essential story is layered and inter-woven with the social and cultural upheaval of the Sixties, the Vietnam War, protests, demonstrations, race riots, hippies, the psychedelic movement, and those who clung to their icons of success from the 50’s. And, running like a string of precious pearls throughout the film, are songs of the Beatles and Beatles-related references and jokes.
We first meet Jude as he is preparing to join the crew of a ship bound for the US. He leaves his Liverpool shipyard job, his girlfriend, and his Mum. We next see him on the campus of Princeton University looking for Wesley Hubert. Jude meets him and reveals that he is Wes’ son. Wes was stationed in England during the war, and didn’t know the girl he left behind was pregnant at the time. He makes it very clear that he doesn’t want Jude disrupting his current life with his wife and children in Princeton, but offers him a place on campus to bed down for a couple of nights.
While hanging out on campus, Jude meets Max (Maxwell to his uptight family), who brings Jude home with him for Thanksgiving. Jude meets the family, including Max’s sister Lucy. The family Thanksgiving dinner provides a perfect vignette of the social dissonance of the time.
Max announces he is dropping out of college. His father demands to know what he will do with his life, and Max responds, with some disgust,
“Do, do, do. Why isn’t the issue here who I am?”
Uncle Teddy: “Because, Maxwell, what you do defines who you are.”
Max: “No, Uncle Teddy, who you are defines what you do.”
Jude: “Surely it’s not what you do but the way that you do it.”
Max heads to New York City with Jude, and they rent rooms in an apartment from Sadie, a nightclub singer. They take in Prudence, who climbed in through the bathroom window while escaping from an abusive boyfriend. JoJo, a guitarist who left Detroit after his younger brother was killed during the race riots there, hooks up with Sadie.
Max takes a job driving a taxi and Jude, who is in the country illegally, freelances as an artist. Jude states, “Without a visa, I don’t really exist. It’s exhilarating in a way. It’s like a weird kind of freedom.”
Then Lucy’s boyfriend, Daniel, is killed in Viet Nam. Lucy decides to spend the summer in New York with Max instead of going to Europe with her parents. She brings some mail for Max from home, and gives it to him very reluctantly. It’s his draft notice – he shouldn’t have dropped out of school, one friend reminds him.
Max reports to the induction center, and a sergeant asks him, “Is there any reason you shouldn’t be in this man’s army?” Max responds, “I’m a cross-dressing homosexual pacifist with a spot on my lung.” “As long as you don’t have flat feet,” answers the sergeant, and Max is stamped “1A” and processed.
JoJo, the guitarist, comments that “Music’s the only thing that makes sense any more. You play it loud enough it keeps the demons at bay.”
Lucy becomes an anti-war activist with SDS and she and Jude argue about it. She tells him she would lie down in front of a tank if it would bring her brother home unhurt, and he responds, “it wouldn’t.” Lucy tells him, “We’re in the middle of a revolution, Jude. And what are you doing, doodles and cartoons?” Jude doesn’t trust the activist Lucy is working with, and she leaves him after he makes a scene at the SDS headquarters.
Jude frantically looks for Lucy at a big demonstration and sees her being hauled away by police, who also arrest him as he fights his way toward her. All the other demonstrators are released, but Jude is still in jail when his father shows up. Wes tells Jude that he has been able to arrange for charges to be dropped, but Jude will be deported.
Max is wounded in Viet Nam, and sent home to recover. The activist Jude hadn’t trusted begins making bombs, and gets blown up when one of them accidentially goes off. Jude takes a job back in the Liverpool shipyard. His former girlfriend is now married, and extremely pregnant. Jude spends a lot of time on the beach staring across the water toward the US.
With Max’s help, Jude returns to New York – with a proper passport and visa this time. To the stirring strains of “All You Need is Love,” Jude and Lucy are reunited, and presumably they live happily ever after.
Jude starts his journey as an adventurer – almost an accidental – expat, but after his deportation his return is very deliberate. He wants a life very different from the one he grew up with, and he finds it in New York with Lucy, Max and their other friends. In Liverpool, he’s a shipyard welder. In New York, he’s an artist. Liverpool – at least the part of the city shown to us in the film – is dark and solid. Life happens behind the brick walls of identical houses built in straight lines. New York is bright, colorful, and filled with life in the streets. Liverpool is predictable, New York is anything but. Although Jude doesn’t get involved in the American turmoil the way Lucy does, he thrives within it.
Notable cameos in the film from Joe Cocker, Eddie Izzard, Bono and Selma Hayak add to its sparkle. I highly recommend Across the Universe.
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