they stick out in all different directions
Skip past "Girl" and jump into "Hold Me Tight" and you wouldn't necessarily take Jude as the lead character here. That song juxtaposes not really Lucy and Jude but Lucy and Molly (Jude's girlfriend in Liverpool). Plus, the American Bandstand style of Lucy's high school dance and the club scene (with Beatles stand-ins) in Liverpool. The film starts us with these two worlds clashing not because the film will necessarily be about that, but because the film is about various cultures colliding, breaking, and exploding.
Hell, just now as I typed that, an army truck full of soldiers drove past the football game where we meet Prudence. The nice wholesome high school scene--about to be interrupted for us by the introduction of homosexuality--is first interrupted by that army truck. And that interruption is a pleasant one. The army guys whistle at the cheerleaders, the cheerleaders and football players cheer on the army guys. The movie does not play for us the reaction to Prudence, though. The object of her attraction here does briefly notice she is staring and seems displeased but the film does not linger on that. Instead, Prudence walks across the field, through the tackles on the football field (much as the various characters will be walking through the tumultuous 60s and into the 70s for the rest of the film) and away from this "normal" life. Next we see her, she is essentially homeless, climbing in out of the rain and being welcomed into Sadie's increasingly populated apartment. (Actually, we see her hitchhiking first, but same difference.)
Jude gets off the ship in America to meet his father, an American former GI who impregnated his mother during the war. Meanwhile, the longer story behind the story is about a new war waging on the other side of the world. Max is drafted into it, Lucy protests against it, and Jude remains on the sidelines.
Actually, that last detail is vital to understanding a lot of this film and what it has to say about the 1960s in America (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the world). Jude jumps ship to meet his father, but then he does not return to that job. He is here in America illegally, transgression the literal law just to be, to live, to love, to do all the nice 1960s counterculture things. This film, on a bigger level, is about transgressing not just the literal law but the figurative law, the kind of stuff I wrote about the other day with Mulvey (1989) and Moulin Rouge!.
Lucy's take on Thanksgiving (which Max calls (not entirely seriously) "a heartwarming American tradition": "It celebrates the time when the Indians shared their food with the early settlers. And, how did we repay them? We slaughtered them in [sic] thousands and shipped them off to the shittiest bits of real estate." That, right there, sums up a lot of the critique this film is putting on America, not just in the 1960s but since its birth, since before its birth.
The Freudian "law." All of these characters, in one way or another, are transgressing the boundaries of what mainstream America would call normal. And, the film doesn't spend much time digging deeply into the causes of most of these transgressions. They are introduced as specific... icons of a sort for their various sides of the 1960s. Prudence (T.V. Carpio) is the lesbian run (walked) out of middle America. Jo-Jo (Martin Luther) loses (his son?) in riots and goes to New York to be a musician. We get no context for the Civil Rights movement or, why that riot we see is happening. That funeral is juxtaposed with the funeral of Lucy's military boyfriend. That may be why Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) turns against the war, except she has already, at this point, been shown to have certain progressive attitudes, particularly a feminist notion of her own future; she does not want to have children. Max (Joe Anderson) drops out of college and grows his hair long, but otherwise, he actually does not transgress; when drafted into the war, he goes. (Arguably, this makes him part of a larger trangression, but that one is political, global, not personal.)
A great juxtaposition just now, during "Come Together"--Jo-Jo walks through a choreographed group of businessmen--all white--dancing. That is a scene into which he does not fit. And, I meant that as the non-cinematic "scene" but it works either way.
Sadie (Dana Fuchs) is a sort of Earth-Mother and matron for the group, already fully steeped in the counterculture.
Prudence says she is from "nowhere." If that doesn't describe, in some way, each of these disparate characters, coming together to form a surrogate family, I don't know what does. In fact, Jude is quite literally re-forming his family. He was raised by a single mother and his biological father has another family. Lucy and Max are escaping their family. Jo-Jo--though the film is not explicit about it, seems to have a wife and a son (or had a son) before he comes to New York. We do not see Prudence's family but we can (and do) presume her family has rejected her. And, this is the time the film chooses as its setting. A time when a new generation is finding itself at odds with the old, at odds with normalcy (like I argued yesterday) but more than usual was the reaction on both sides. The affluence of the 1950s here in America allowed enough leisure time that a lot of college-age kids were rejecting the values that their parents held dear.
Strangely, I feel I'm generalizing too much, considering this is a topic I love. I mean, I've written a lot about the 1960s before. First, for example, I wrote a long piece about 60s radicals: Flower Children Have Grown Thorns: How Weatherman Was Born from the Anti-War Movement, How it Succeeded and Why It Failed. Then, I tackled a single riot in The Solution to Violence in the Streets: Framing the 1968 Democratic National Convention Police Riot in the National Consciousness. Finally, I looked at marriage through the lens of the sexual revolution in Smash Monogamy: Sexual Revolution to Political Revolution (that one was published). The first is all about, in particular, the group called Weatherman, and they figure in the other two as well. In Across the Universe, we get Paco (Logan Marshall-Green)--who Lucy seems to fall for, though it is more his cause she falls for, after Max goes off to war. He's in the SDR (Students for a Democratic Republic) as opposed to the real SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and really, by the time we really see him, with Lucy working in that Brownstone that later explodes, the group should have broken up, part of it turning into Weatherman (or some fictionalized version thereof).
Back in 1999, a miniseries called The '60s aired on NBC, and while it tried to grab at all the various threads of the decade, putting them into two families, it mostly came across weakly, trying a little too hard to shoehorn things in. NBC's American Dreams, a regular series that ran from 2002 to 2005 did a better job at tackling the nuance of some of those threads. And, despite some of the shallowness when it comes to backstory, Across the Universe manages to shove so many threads right up against each other and make them work. I think it's a bit of the magic of the musical format (not to mention Julie Taymor's direction) that allows this to work, when it really shouldn't. Like Moulin Rouge!, this film builds its story on the familiar, songs we know or know about knowing; the Beatles are a piece of world history, of British history, of American history, and building a story on such familiar, comforting tunes allows for a lot of leverage. Taymor can get away with a lot. She can go in many directions, give us many separate throughlines--I find it quite remarkable, for example, how far into the film we meet Sadie or Jo-Jo, and yet their stories line right up with all the rest, and they all converge for the grand finale.
It's such a simple structure, and yet it manages to touch on so many things in so many ways. It's like a visually poetic love letter to the 1960s, taking in its beautiful features as well as its faults and absolutely loving it for the schizophrenic beast it was.