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I remember the lead-up to seeing Across the Universe almost as vividly as the movie itself. It started with the effervescent trailer, which I saw in theaters ahead of a movie that was not nearly as memorable. I then proceeded — for months on end — to rewatch the trailer via a still relatively new internet tool called YouTube. I fantasized somewhat obsessively about what the movie would actually be like, the snippets of stunning visuals sparking endless possibilities in my mind. When Across the Universe was finally released in September 2007, I saw it with my parents, whom I had to beg for weeks to take me after I had (foolishly) promised I wouldn’t go without them. I was 17, and the magical story of Jude (Jim Sturgess), Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), Max (Joe Anderson), JoJo (Martin Luther), Sadie (Dana Fuchs), and Prudence (T.V. Carpio), fed an ache and a longing I couldn’t yet name. I went back twice by myself.
Directed by Julie Taymor, Across the Universe was an extravagant cinematic endeavor, requiring nearly 5,000 extras and costumes, 300 dancers, and elaborate handmade art (including giant puppets). It also featured intricate, beautifully staged choreography, including sequences like a macabre ballet in an Army induction center set to “I Want You,” a psychedelic trip underwater set to “Because,” and a rousing frat house version of “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Musical legends like Bono, Eddie Izzard, and Joe Cocker made cameos, as did actress Salma Hayek, and the entire thing was shot in over 70 locations. What’s more, there’s only minimal dialogue — the vast majority of communication between characters is done through 33 reimagined and re-orchestrated songs by The Beatles, each of which helps tell a sweeping tale of one of the most turbulent periods in American history.
You’d expect such a movie to elicit a visceral response. At the very least, it should inspire respect for the sheer scale of ambition required to make it a reality. And yet, the reception from critics was mostly lukewarm and unenthusiastic, the kind of reviews you’d see in response to an amateur’s first attempt, as opposed to those given to an established auteur with mega-successes — in theater, if not film — under her belt.
There were exceptions to the tepid reviews, of course: Roger Ebert loved it and gave the movie a rave, while Stephen Whitty at The Newark Star Ledger hated it and called it a “sloppy collage.” But overall, Across the Universe’s reviews don’t reflect the grandeur of the movie: With 53% on Rotten Tomatoes, it can’t even claim the “misunderstood classic” badge of honor of having been viciously trashed. Mostly, it was just ignored.
“It’s about respect,” Taymor told Refinery29 over a Zoom call in June. “There isn't a sense of awe about women [directors].”
Partly, this may have been because Taymor’s name and work were still so closely associated with theater at that point, despite having directed two films. But as she pointed out: “Mike Nichols had no problem doing both. [He] was as much a theater director as he was a film director. But he's Mike Nichols."
Another plausible explanation is that women directors rarely get the benefit of the doubt when taking on complex and visionary projects. For comparison’s sake, take a look at how Rotten Tomatoes describes the critics’ consensus over Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, a polarizing and controversial movie that was nonetheless uniquely creative and ambitious. Accompanying a 69% rating, the blurb reads: “There's no denying that mother! is the thought-provoking product of a singularly ambitious artistic vision, though it may be too unwieldy for mainstream tastes.”
“On something like mother!, even if people didn't like it, they think they should think there's something important there because he's Darren Aronofsky,” Taymor added. “So, you have to consider that there must be something that you missed. It's almost like you're not up to it.”
By 2007, Taymor should have earned that same status. A decade earlier, her stage musical adaptation of The Lion King had debuted on Broadway to incandescent reviews. It earned 11 Tony Award nominations and won six, making Taymor the first woman to win Best Director of a Musical in the history of the awards. Since then, at least 24 productions have been staged in over 100 cities worldwide. As of 2017, Broadway’s The Lion King had grossed nearly $8.1 billion, making it the highest-grossing piece of entertainment ever. Ever. Still, it’s but one entry in Taymor’s long career in theater that has spanned continents.
In the 1970s, while in Indonesia on a year-long Thomas J. Watson Fellowship after graduating from Oberlin College, she founded her first theater company, Teatr Loh, which performed original productions, first in Asia, and then in the United States. Over the years, she’s directed four Shakespeare plays, and five operas (including Mozart’s The Magic Flute — twice). Her first musical theater production, Juan Darién: A Carnival Mass, was nominated for five Tony Awards in 1996.
In 1999, she made the jump to film with her first feature, Titus, an adaptation of Shakespeares’ Titus Andronicus that was the subject of virulent controversy because of its raw depictions of sexual violence and murder. Taymor’s second film, 2002’s Frida, was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Actress (for Salma Hayek, who later revealed the agony she had to go through to get the film made, against the backdrop of traumatic abuse at the hands of producer Harvey Weinstein), and won two Oscars for makeup and original score.
In the 13 years since its release, Across the Universe has gained cult status, in no small part due to its celebrated soundtrack co-produced by T-Bone Burnett, with an original score by Elliot Goldenthal. The story, written by Dick Clement and Ian LeFrenais with input from Taymor, loosely centers around three main characters. The first person we meet is Jude, a Liverpool native who travels to the United States in the mid-1960s, where he meets Max, a carefree Princeton drop-out with a chip on his shoulder. When the latter invites Jude home for Thanksgiving, we meet Lucy, Max’s sister who refuses to settle for her mother’s life of freshly cut lawns and suburban dinners. Instead, she moves to New York, falls in love with Jude, and becomes militant in the anti-Vietnam War movement.
The film was a personal project for Taymor, who used her own family as a reference point for the characters of Max and Lucy. “My brother is Max,” she said. “He was a musician who dropped out of college [and drove a cab]. He enlisted [in the army] really early because he thought he could play chess and box. My sister, who's two years younger than my brother, was a radical. She became the head of Students for a Democratic Society.”
Still, the director added that she was adamant that the story include more than just the experience of two white Americans and a single British lad. Hence the characters of Prudence, a closeted lesbian Asian-American cheerleader who escapes her narrow-minded small town; Jojo, a Black guitar player who moves to New York after his young brother is killed in the 1967 Detroit riots; and Sadie, an up-and-coming Janis Joplin-like singer.
“[The music of The Beatles was] inspired by Black American music,” Taymor said. “It's inherent in everything, from ‘Let It Be’ to ‘Oh! Darling.’ I felt that we needed to represent America at the time: the protests and civil rights unrest, and the transition from the ‘50s to the ‘60s, which was a complete opening of young people.”
“I don't feel like critics went into the seriousness of Across the Universe,” Taymor continued. “All musicals, in a way, are simple stories, because they should be. But the layering of depth in that story is huge. The relationship of young people to protest — that's exactly what's going on right now.”
That embracing of the rage and optimism of the era’s youth is one of the elements that spoke to me as a teen. (Okay, also Sturgess’ smirk when he sings “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” in a dream-like dance sequence in a bowling alley.) But just as compelling was Taymor’s careful treatment of 17-year-old Wood as Lucy, who could very well have ended up as a love interest with no inner life of her own. In fact, Lucy’s radicalization is one of the cornerstones of the narrative. While her friends are still caught in the friendly psychedelic scene of the late-’60s, she’s already looking to the darker and more disillusioned ‘70s. Even in the film’s final moments, when she and Jude lock eyes across rooftops as he sings “All You Need Is Love,” you get the sense that this is not where her story ends. In fact, the final shot of the movie is of her face.
Still, the most radical element of the film didn’t even occur to me until Taymor mentioned it herself. “The idea that you could take those songs and put them into female mouths changes the quality of the songs and the meaning of the lyrics,” she said. “But this is the great thing about The Beatles — they wrote for 14-year-old girls. They understood the psyche of 14-, 15-, 16-year-old girls. That's why the girls went berserk, because [The Beatles] completely understood where they were coming from. And so when you take ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ and you see it from one girl, Prudence, to another girl, a cheerleader, it bursts open the songs.”
The same could be said for Lucy’s soft rendition of “Blackbird,” which is tainted by her grief of seeing her brother return from Vietnam a broken man, or Sadie’s fiercely sexual take on “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” By having women sing songs typically sung by men, Taymor flipped the gendered narratives of the songs, opening them up to everyone. Taymor’s one regret when it comes to Across the Universe, though, is one that would have made the film even more inclusive. “I feel bad that I didn't have a Black woman as a main part,” she said.
In retrospect, the deck was stacked against Across the Universe long before the critics ever got to see it. When Taymor’s cut came in at two hours and eight minutes, producer Joe Roth made his own internal cut — roughly 30 minutes shorter. As Taymor tells it, she found out about it at the airport hours before getting on a plane to show her film to Paul McCartney. According to Taymor, the other version was “a disaster” — Roth had cut many of the film’s most provocative elements, and instead focused on imparting a safe, upbeat message.
“When I saw [his] cut of Across the Universe, I wept,” Taymor said. “Because I went, Oh my god, it's about a boring privileged white girl from the suburbs. [He was] trying to make High School Musical, meaning, we can't upset the 13- or 14-year-old girls. I said, ‘It's quite the opposite. It's [those same] girls who are going to love Lucy.’”
Taymor points to a scene she wrote where Lucy is walking home from school with her best friend, discussing her reluctance to ever have children. Like so many others in the film, it’s a moment that comes straight from Taymor’s own teenage experience. So, to hear the experience be denied as “too unlikeable” was all the more infuriating. (Lucy’s on-screen sexuality had been problematic from the start, Taymor said, recounting that she and Evan Rachel Wood had to go through all sorts of gymnastics to make sure only one of her nipples was ever visible on-screen at once in order to avoid an R rating.)
“[He] cut [Lucy’s] natural activism, her awareness of political movement, of how you can become an independent woman, or whatever you wanted to be,” she said.
And that’s not all. “There were no Detroit riots,” Taymor added, referring to a soul crushing rendition of “Let It Be” by Timothy Mitchum, who plays a young Black boy caught in the violence. “You had “Let It Be” sung by Black people, but you didn't see them. Jojo just showed up in New York.”
Finally, Prudence’s scene singing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ to her cheerleader crush was also cut, Taymor said. Sony did not respond to Refinery29’s request for comment.
Although Taymor’s version was the one that was released in theaters, the damage was done. The fight over which cut to use became a very public media battle between Roth and Taymor, who claims the film was later penalized in its marketing and distribution. As Vulture pointed out in its own interview with Taymor pegged to an Across the Universe theatrical re-release in 2018, the gendered language used to describe her in the press is fairly shocking. One New York Times story from March 2007 quotes Roth saying: “If you work off her hysteria, that will do the film an injustice.” A Variety article by Anne Thompson describing the conflict refers to Taymor as “willing to bite the hand that feeds her,” and going “ballistic to save her child.”
This wasn’t the first time the director faced pushback from executives when it came to her vision; the release of Frida, for example, was rife with disputes with producer Harvey Weinstein, who also demanded Taymor make cuts. Nor was it the last — in March 2011, Taymor would be ousted as director of Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, a hugely ambitious production that suffered multiple setbacks and mishaps, because of creative differences. As a co-creator of the show, she sued for royalties and settled in 2013.
Learning all this, it would be understandable to conclude that Taymor is an exacting and uncompromising director. And perhaps that is the case. But so are Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, and David O. Russell. These white male auteurs are all known for their incredibly controlling — and in some cases, downright abusive behavior — but they are beloved within Hollywood nonetheless. In fact, their unwillingness to compromise their vision is part of what makes them legends in their field.
When Taymor asked veteran director Sidney Lumet for advice on how to compromise over cuts to Across the Universe, he replied: "Don't cut it at all." When she pointed out that she didn’t have final cut over the film, he said: "You cut a digit and the whole hand will go.”
Taymor will be making her big-screen comeback later this year with The Glorias, based on Gloria’s Steinem’s 2015 memoir, My Life on the Road, and starring Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander as the feminist leader at different points in her life. In a way, Taymor says, the film is a continuation of the work she started with Across the Universe.
“We mused with the cast about what Across the Universe 2 would look like,” Taymor said. “What happened to everybody? Max OD'd in Oregon. You lost him after the war. Prudence went to India and became part of the yoga scene. Jude became a radical graffiti artist. Jojo and Sadie got married, had children, but they split, and he became more into funk. And Lucy went off to Asia as a journalist, and became involved in what was going on there. [The Glorias] is Lucy getting older.”
I can’t wait for the trailer.