Across the Universe Soundtrack Review


Courtesy of Columbia Pictures / Interscope Records

Cover bands face the near-impossible challenge of doing justice to the originals while still carving out their own niche in pop music history.

Director Julie Taymor’s film “Across the Universe” — conceptually “Moulin Rouge” and musically The Beatles — seems primed for success on both counts, if only because The Beatles are still popular.

After all, it was almost 40 years ago today The Beatles were taught to play, and the Fab Four are still going strong.

It’s no surprise that “Across the Universe’s” soundtrack is a slew of fun, beautifully lyrical songs, but a shame that it too often channels its novelty from the mid-60s.

Taymor, who does double duty as the soundtrack’s executive producer, drew from both a more famous solo act — U2’s Bono — and relative unknown musical talents — Jim Sturgess and Evan Rachel Wood, who also play the male and female lead in the movie.

For their part, Sturgess and Wood do their best when the often-bulky accompaniments don’t crowd their broad vocal performances.

For example, Sturgess’ “All My Loving” is marvelous right up until the rest of the band comes in, and his “Something” is to date the best cover of a George Harrison song I’ve ever heard.

And while Wood’s “It Won’t Be Long” fails to escape the original’s boy-band skiffle, it’s nonetheless a solid recording. If she needed any redeeming, she’d have it fully with a clear and chirp-less “Blackbird.”

Both Sturgess and Wood are easier on the ears than any of The Beatles ever were.

On the other hand, Bono is fresh like week-old salmon. In true Bono fashion, any innovations in both of his covers — namely “I Am the Walrus” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” — make the songs unremarkable and bland.

What’s worse is that his versions aren’t even successful as paint-by-the-numbers remixes of the original songs. These lackluster contributions strip out any roughness or flavor from the 1967 releases. Because of that, the improved post-production effects his versions do feature make the songs less psychedelic, not more.

Bono avoids producing the soundtrack’s biggest flub, though. That honor goes to T.V. Carpio for her “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” This take loses its momentum from the way she warbles her way through it. Her often-shrill voice lands squarely between whine and scream.

Mediocrity aside, there are certainly a few stand-out songs on the CD.

By-and-far the best among any of the 16 songs is “Let It Be.” Soulful and crisp, this gospel take avoids going over the top. Like much of Taymor’s soundtrack, it’s also a far superior recording to the original.

Original mixer Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” is nowhere to be heard and the backup vocals aren’t outright cheesy. It’s the best pop use of a gospel choir since the Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded “Under the Bridge.”

“Come Together” and “Helter Skelter” also compare favorably to The Beatles’ releases. In each, it’s almost like a distortion-heavy Jimi Hendrix did a take or two while holding back on his usual sort of distortion-pedal musical chaos. The results are a few more great recordings that sound just enough like and just enough unlike the original ones.

With exceptions like these, it’s a pity that the “Across the Universe” soundtrack is evenly divided with inspired covers and those that rest heavily on their lyrical laurels.

It’s hard not to feel almost sorry for Taymor. If anyone’s going to listen to her story, it’s because they’ve been hearing it for 40 years.

Beatles vs. Cover Songs

1) Song: “All My Loving”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Original

Reason: Taymor opened with a capella vocals — that’s gutsy. Does it pay off? No.

2) Song: “I Want to Hold Your Hand”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Original

Reason: The only thing striking about Taymor’s version is the excessive vibrato.

3) Song: “It Won’t Be Long”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Taymor

Reason: Essentially the same, but I happen to like girl bands better than boy bands.

4) Song: “I’ve Just Seen a Face”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Original

Reason: Taymor’s — heavier and glossier — doesn’t go two rounds with the breezy original.

5) Song: “Let It Be”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Taymor

Reason: Add just a pinch of “Lean On Me,” switch out the cheesy organ.

6) Song: “Come Together”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Taymor

Reason: A Hendrix-esque character does this one in the film. Almost sounds like it.

7) Song: “I Am the Walrus”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Original

Reason: Improved post-production effects do not a better song make.

8) Song: “Something”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Taymor

Reason: Once everything else is mixed softly enough, Sturgess outshines the old vocals.

9) Song: “Oh! Darling”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Original

Reason: The distortion pedal doesn’t serve this one as well as it did on “Come Together.”

10) Song: “Strawberry Fields Forever”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Taymor

Reason: Taymor’s version cut out the horns, and the ending loses the bad parts of the original.

11) Song: “Across the Universe”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Original

Reason: The old one doesn’t sounds ridiculous reciting the mantra.

12) Song: “Helter Skelter”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Taymor

Reason: The new version has hard rock guitarists playing it, and it ends the first time.

13) Song: “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Original

Reason: Close, but hats off to the original’s electric guitar’s edginess.

14) Song: “Blackbird”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Taymor

Reason: A striking new ending. As one editor put it, it’s without those stupid bird sounds.

15) Song: “Hey Jude”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Taymor

Reason: The new one is somewhat shorter than eternity.

16) Song: “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”
Which version is better?

Verdict:
Original

Reason: Bigger, broader and more ethereal, Taymor’s version lacks focus.

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