Lucy ("in the Sky With Diamonds") is a good girl from a small town in America who loses her boyfriend to the Vietnam War. Since her brother Maxwell's ("Silver Hammer") a college dropout who's taken to hanging out with ("Hey") Jude, she inevitably hooks up with the working class Liverpudlian who's in the U.S. looking for the dad he never knew. All three are a bit "Helter Skelter," and each of them needs ... "Something" as they make their "Blue Jay Way" to New York City.
They move into a boarding house/flat/commune run by Janis Joplin-esque singer ("Sexy") Sadie. There they meet a Jimi Hendrix-like guitarist named JoJo ("Get Back"). And then, who should—literally—climb in the bathroom window but ("Dear") Prudence.
These beautiful people with flowers in their hair and Beatles songs on their lips get caught up in radical protests, dabble with psychedelic drugs, struggle to reach artistic dreams and try to hold tight to love, love, love—all against the stylized backdrop of the tumultuous 1960s.
Jude and Lucy earnestly love each other and, in spite of being separated by personal conflicts and an ocean, that love eventually draws them back together. Lucy gets involved in the war protest movement, mainly in an attempt to save her brother by stopping the war before he gets hurt.
When Jude meets his biological father (who had a war romance with his mother), the man isn't sure what he should do. So Jude assures him he doesn't want to disrupt his life, saying, "I'm just here so that we both know each other exist." Later, when Jude is in trouble, his father sacrifices secrecy in order to come to his aid.
During the film's climax, "Hey Jude" brings a spark of hope with its lines, "Don't make it bad/Take a sad song and make it better/... And any time you feel the pain/Hey Jude, refrain/Don't carry the world upon your shoulders/Well don't you know that it's a fool who plays it cool/By making his world a little colder."
A funeral takes place in a church. Another scene shows a pastor with his Bible at a gravesite. JoJo comments that music "keeps the demons away." Hare Krishna dance through a subway car. Disparaging jokes are cracked about prayer meetings.
There's also a component of spiritual seeking and fulfillment to the group's psychedelic, "transcendental perception/turn on, tune in, drop out" phase.
As Lucy sleeps—and Jude sketches her form—she rolls to her side and exposes her breast. Seeing the drawing after she wakes, she comments casually, "You didn't get my left nipple right." Many other rough sketches of nude women adorn the walls and desk surfaces of their flat. Sex between Jude and Lucy is implied (the naked pair is seen the next morning mostly covered by a sheet) and they live together for a time.
During an implied drug experience, people are shown swimming through the air in various states of undress—and in slow motion. Max swims naked, as do Jude and Lucy who are entwined in a full embrace. While so entangled, the two kiss passionately. Wearing only body paint that makes them look dead, women are seen (fully and from the front) falling into the ocean. And during the psychedelically colored end credits, nude bodies twist, twirl and commingle. Naked, Max floats face-up in the water. (His crotch is submerged just enough so as not to be fully visible.)
Nurses (actually multiple Salma Hayeks) wear tight-fitting, cleavage-baring uniforms while they dance seductively—wringing out every sexual molecule possible from "Happiness Is a Warm Gun." ("Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" also makes its sexual presence known.) Prostitutes in underwear- and cleavage-revealing outfits dance and sway. A poster of Brigitte Bardot displays lots of cleavage. Sadie shows cleavage as she walks around in a flimsy robe. Max ogles high school girls and crudely asks about one girl's developing breasts.
Max and a number of other young men are shown standing and dancing in nothing but their undershorts while reporting for the draft. (One quick shot shows a side view of a naked man cupping his hands over his crotch.)
Prudence passionately longs for a sexual relationship with a sequence of women. She eyes a high school cheerleader while crooning a slowed-down version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand." It's said that she's devastated when she can't "have" Sadie. And she latches on to a female contortionist. (It's indicated that she's been sleeping around with men, too.)
Lucy kisses her boyfriend Daniel at the school dance and on her front porch. Jude kisses his British girlfriend in a back alley as they lean against a wall. And speaking of exes—and currents—Jude doesn't seem to think much of loyalty. When he first starts crushing on Lucy he's told she has a boyfriend. That's OK, he winks, "I have a girlfriend."
In a cameo appearance as acid guru Dr. Robert, U2's Bono includes the odd line "masturbating alligators" in a stream-of-consciousness monologue.
Molotov cocktails and bullets fly during a Detroit riot. Caught looting, a man is shot by a National Guardsman. Later we see a young boy in a casket.
During protests, many people (including Jude and Lucy) are hit, kicked and/or bludgeoned by police officers. Once or twice, blood is seen streaming down faces. The protestors, for their part, throw things and punch the officers. Jude socks a radical protest leader in the mouth. After which the man and his cohorts are seen assembling pipe bombs. A newspaper article indicates that people were killed by those bombs. But it's significant to note that Lucy rejects the use of violence in any form as a means of stopping the war.
Bombs explode and machine guns blaze in Vietnam. One soldier is shot and falls down dead. The song "Strawberry Fields" accompanies visuals of Jude creating art out of strawberries—which leak red juice (blood).
We see Prudence with a large bruise on her face (given by an ex-boyfriend).
Drug and Alcohol Content
The Beatles lyric "I get high with a little help from my friends" is taken quite literally here as Jude parties with Max and his fellow frat friends. They drink. And they smoke weed. (Oddly, the passed-around joint is mimed, but the exhaled smoke is quite real.) They all pass out as morning comes. And later, a marijuana joint is seen in Jude's ashtray. He smokes it.
At another party, "pink punch" causes everybody to have a psychedelic experience, complete with swirling colors and distorted visuals. By the time their drug trip is done, they're dazed and confused, miles from home.
Max is given a shot by a nurse. (The syringe is filled with a blue substance in the shape of a naked girl.) We see his wide-eyed reaction to the drug.
Beer and other forms of alcohol are also party (and pity party) staples. Max and his friends drink beer on the rooftop of a college building and use a beer bottle as a tee for their golf balls. A very frustrated Sadie guzzles straight from a Jack Daniel's bottle. A very depressed Jude gets drunk in a bar.
Max says that New York has "great music, great dope and orgies" and that Jude needs "a bar, a brawl and a brothel." Max's mom (correctly) thinks he's surrounded by "promiscuous dope-fiends." Max's friends suggest that he stick himself with a needle to simulate drug needle tracks in order to avoid the draft.
Cigarettes are also common. Jude smokes them constantly, and nearly everyone around him smokes at one time or another. Lucy tries to reassure her mom that going to New York won't corrupt her because after all she doesn't even smoke. One scene later, she's in Greenwich Village—smoking.
Other Negative Elements
Golf balls aren't always hit off beer bottles. One is hit off a tee stuck in Jude's mouth. And faking a drug addiction isn't the only vice Max's friends suggest as he tries to figure out a way to avoid military service. Homosexual proclivities, murderously sociopathic dalliances and pedophilic interests all surface as non-qualifiers for "this man's Army."
Jude unapologetically jumps ship and is in the U.S. illegally. Lucy defines having children as "pure narcissism." And she seems to believe that Thanksgiving is a holiday conceived to celebrate the Indians for sharing food with the Pilgrims (leaving God out of the equation).
In protesting the Vietman War, verbal and visual charges of "heartless imperialism" are leveled against the U.S. Max burns his draft papers. Jude and Lucy taunt a police officer. And there is a picture of Chairman Mao on the wall of the protestors' headquarters.
Max makes a quick joke about rival frat boys torturing him by applying shoe polish to his genitals. During the Army's induction exam, we see a stream of urine filling a medical beaker.
Nine times out of 10 when creating a musical, a moviemaker will start with a fun story and then emphasize the tale's high points with catchy tunes, sending listeners out with a song in their heart. Across the Universe director Julie Taymor went the other way around. She started with 33 well-known Beatles songs and let the tunes shape the story.
The result is sometimes beautiful and brilliant, occasionally strange, ultimately uneven and frequently immoral. Taymor pulls out the creative stops one minute, shoehorns in an odd symbolic—often sexually infused—statement about the war the next, and then rambles dramatically until it's time for another song.
When her vision works, lyrics take on more profound meaning, dialogue flows seamlessly into song, and you revel in The Beatles' timeless music and Taymor's effortless creativity. You can't help but smile—and tap your toe. The youthful cast sounds great and perfectly fits the story. Stylized '60s visuals with bright colors and inventive animations are all part of the imaginative zing.
But when things don't run so smoothly, the drama starts feeling contorted and stretched. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" gets layered with lesbian longing. "Dear Prudence," with its line, "Won't you come out to play?" is used to lure a distraught bisexual out of a locked closet. And so on. Social commentary similarly becomes either too heavy-handed or splinters as moviegoers lose track of what the point is, anyway.
Add lilting psychedelic drug trips, nudity, illicit sex and profanity, and Across the Universe becomes a journey that is more of a tedious, bumpy bus trip than the "Magical Mystery Tour" that was intended.