Theater-trained Julie Taymor's phantasmagoric story of young lovers caught up in the counterculture as seen through the prism of Beatles songs is a wildly ambitious undertaking, and her reach exceeds her grasp for a good half of its two-hour and 10-minute running time. But the other half is breathtaking, simultaneously visually inventive and vividly attuned to the broad streak of melancholy that runs through some of the sunniest pop hits of the 1960s.
The year is 1968, and restless Jude (Jim Sturgess) sits on a deserted Liverpool beach, plaintively singing "Is there anybody going to listen to my story?" as he looks out to sea. Determined to escape the dead-end shipyard job where his dreams of being an artist die a little more every day, he leaves his conventional girlfriend (Lisa Hogg) and the single mother (Angela Mounsey) who raised him after her wartime romance with an American soldier went bad. Jude works his way to the U.S. as a deckhand and jumps ship, hoping to find the father he's heard works at Princeton University. The reunion isn't all he'd hoped, starting with the fact that his dad is a janitor, but Jude falls in with restless, free-spirited Max (Joe Anderson), who hates his wealthy family's lockjawed conformity and runs away to live la vie de boheme in Greenwich Village. Jude tags along, falls in love with Max's sister, Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), who just lost her high-school sweetheart to the Vietnam War, and bears witness to the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll revolution. Their circle of friends and fellow travelers includes rockers Sadie (Dana Fuchs) and JoJo (Martin Luther McCoy), cheerleader-turned-lesbian-hippie Prudence (T.V. Carpio), student radical Paco (Logan Marshall-Green), merry prankster Dr. Robert (Bono), acid guru Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard), and sundry dropouts, scenemakers and activists. Any resemblance to Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin (whom Fuchs played in the Off-Broadway musical Love, Janis), Weather Underground founder Mark Rudd and other icons of the decade are strictly intentional.
The Beatles catalog spans the innocent optimism of early '60s beat boom hits like "All My Loving" and the pessimistic bad-trippiness of "Helter Skelter," so it's no stretch to find the entire history of the 1960s in their cumulative output. And Taymor's cast can sing, some astonishingly well. But for every brilliant reimagining of a familiar song "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" as a plaintive expression of thwarted same-sex love there's an obvious clunker like "Something in the Way She Moves," which Jude sings in the first flush of love for Lucy, or "Revolution," his reproach to Paco and his student activists. Daniel Ezralow's choreography, which relies heavily on ordinary movements in stylized patterns (like Twyla Tharp's numbers for 1979's HAIR), is equally uneven, but there are a couple of stunning sequences, notably the nightmarish induction fantasy set to "I Want You." And yes, that is Salma Hayek in the chorus line of sexily sinister nurses, perhaps repaying Taymor for lending her dramatic credibility with FRIDA (2002). leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh