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'All You Need is Love'

People young and old are lining up outside the Varsity Theatre in Ashland to see Julie Taymor's movie "Across the Universe." What's the attraction?

The newspaper blurb says: "A love story set against the backdrop of the 1960s amid the turbulent years of antiwar protest, mind exploration and rock 'n' roll, the film moves from the dockyards of Liverpool to the creative psychedelia of Greenwich Village, from the riot-torn streets of Detroit to the killing fields of Vietnam. Star-crossed lovers Jude and Lucy, along with a small group of friends and musicians, are swept up into the emerging anti-war and counterculture movements ..."

For those of my generation, there are many scenes in this movie that we actually lived through. They stir our memories and remind us of the ideals we tried to embody.

But the movie is more than a trip down memory lane. It's more than it's story. It features about 34 Beatles songs sung by actors whose characters, like Jude and Lucy, are based on people in Beatles' songs. Some characters are based on real people like Ken Keasy, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. And some characters are archetypes like generation gap families, draftees, college students and artists.

Part of the fun in watching the movie is playing a kind of "Where's Waldo" finding references to songs whose every lyric you know. Part of the fun, too, is singing those songs in the theater, but "Across the Universe" hasn't achieved that kind of "Rocky Horror Picture Show" cult status. Yet.

The Beatles were not your ordinary rock 'n' roll band. You can hear the Muses speaking through their music, which is at once an evocation of an era and a timeless serenade to the human condition — as it is and as it could be. And that's what gives the film its soul. Since the Beatles aren't performing the songs, you get to experience how well their music holds its own, even with newer arrangements.

Comparisons to Cirque du Soleil and other Beatles-inspired films are inevitable. Coincidentally, Cirque du Soleil's current Las Vegas show, "Love," is a tribute to Beatles' music. While "A Hard Day's Night" (1964), "Help" (1965) and "Yellow Submarine" (1968) had more of a soft, playful feel, "Across the Universe" feels darker and more hard-edged. It still has its quirky, arty moments, but can be long-winded and seems anxious to hammer home its points, rather than letting us discover them ourselves.

Taymor was director/costume designer/mask and puppetry maker for the "Lion King" on Broadway. Her movie direction credits include "Frida" and "Titus." Cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel ("Amélie") and dialogue by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais ("The Commitments") have given "Across the Universe" its lush look and credible conversations. Throw into the mix protracted cameos by Eddie Izzard, Joe Cocker and Bono and you've got a film that — like its characters — is delightfully "doing its own thing."

Few of the cast members were even alive when the story's events took place. Many of the younger theater-goers only know the Beatles songs as "golden oldies" on the radio, rather than a major part of the sound track to their lives like they were for my generation. In that sense, the film's release is timely.

The U.S. is at war — again — and our young people are being sent to a land they know little about, knowing even less why they are there, and fighting more to stay alive than support some political agenda.

In the film, as in life, there are paradoxes. Young people at college discover the dark side of their nation, and in trying to do something about it incur more problems and suffering. A fight breaks out in the offices of a peace organization. Peace activists end up making bombs. Anti-establishment rock musicians with big egos are courted by record companies seeing dollar signs.

In its review The New York Times noted: "Because of its oh-wow aesthetic, its refusal to adopt a critical distance from the '60s drug culture, its tacit approval of the characters' antiwar activism and its token attention to the decade's racial strife, 'Across the Universe' leaves itself wide open to derision, complaints and endless nitpicking. But it couldn't have succeeded any other way. The movie is completely devoid of the protective cynicism that is now a reflexive response to the term 'the '60s.' "

What's so satisfying about "Across the Universe" is that it was made at all, and made as well as it was. When it works — which is often — it is, as the Beatles' fellow countrymen say, "brilliant." And for that, people will stand in line.