January 8, 2008 -- This movie plays like a feature length music video about the 1960s set to the tune of Beatles music, but with a more developed storyline, involving romance and friendship, than most music videos. The film shows off some fine youthful music talent to go with the grizzled old guard (Joe Cocker) and Bono, who serves as a bridge between the generations. Cast members, several of them gifted musicians, perform all the musical numbers in the film. It covers the turbulent period of social and political upheaval in 1968, including the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, a major political movement to stop the war in Vietnam, race riots and some of the best pop music ever composed. The romances and friendships depicted in the film are just as turbulent as the politics of the era.
The sweet voice of singer-actor Jim Sturgess was a revelation to me. I'd never heard of this Paul McCartney look-alike before. In the film, he plays Jude (as in the Beatles song “Hey Jude,” written for John Lennon's son, Julian). Several characters in the film are named after characters mentioned in Beatles songs, such as Lucy (played by Evan Rachel Wood of “Down in the Valley”), Prudence (T.V. Carpio of "She Hate Me") and JoJo (played by a gifted singer named Martin Luther). A Liverpool lad, Jude jumps ship to visit America in search of his father, who abandoned his mother long ago. Along the way, he meets Lucy and her brother, Max Carrigan (Joe Anderson of "Becoming Jane"). They all room together in a New York City boarding house run by Sadie (Dana Fuchs, a singer who sounds a lot like Janis Joplin), along with JoJo and Prudence, who first arrives in the building through the bathroom window. Prudence first appears in the movie, however as a cheerleader in the Midwest, singing a soulful version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Propelled by Beatles songs performed by the cast, we follow these characters on a journey of self-discovery. There is a cross-country journey aboard a hippie bus run by Doctor Robert (Bono) and a singing bum (none other than Joe Cocker) on a street corner. Max is drafted and serves in Vietnam. He later jokes that “Everything below the neck works fine.” The band breaks up over artistic differences. Lovers come together, then move apart because of political differences. Lucy gets involved in radical politics and Jude can't go there (which is all explained in Jude's emotional rendition of “Revolution”). Politics and personal relationships reflect each other in this turbulent period of history. The Beatles music provides an apt soundtrack for all of it. Evan Rachel Wood has a fair singing voice, while Sturgess and Anderson give stirring performances and Dana Fuchs and Martin Luther are real powerhouse performers who can belt out a tune with the best of them. Most numbers appear to be lip-synched, perhaps due to poor sound recording conditions in some scenes.
The film features a number of very imaginative singing and dance numbers, including some underwater ballet (as in James Bond opening sequences), some wild costumes, some 1960s-style psychedelic effects. Salma Hayek appears as multiple dancing nurses in one musical number set in a veteran's hospital (which features a strange James Bond-like hypodermic injection). Comic and actor Eddie Izzard appears as Mister Kite in an elaborate musical number set to the tune of the same name from the Beatles Sgt. Pepper album. This film features a number of very imaginative visual sequences. While the story is not entirely coherent, the great Beatles music and numerous effective cast musical performances makes up for the film's narrative weakness. It does achieve some genuinely moving scenes. This film is a mixed bag, but it is certainly memorable. It even has a little bit to say about the current immigration hoo-hah in the United States. It rates a B.
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