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'Across the Universe'

Julie Taymor uses more than 30 Beatles songs to tell a brand-new story about a dude from Liverpool named Jude, who travels to the U.S. and gets caught up in the helter-skelter insanity of the 1960s — sit-ins, love-ins, riots, Vietnam, psychedelia, the works.

Along the way, he meets Lucy ("the girl who came to stay"), Prudence (who falls for Lovely Rita, meter maid), Jojo (who plays guitar for the Joplin-like Sadie) and Maxwell (who drops out of college and gets drafted). It's basically Hair, with better music.

Taymor, the director who created the rich visual tapestry in Broadway's The Lion King as well as the inventive cinematic landscapes of Frida and Titus, brings an impressive array of visual tricks to the story: Uncle Sam posters belt out "I want yooooou" to a would-be draft-dodger, Bono's Walrus narrates a psychedelic magical-mystery bus tour and visits the Amazing Mr. Kite (Eddie Izzard) in a puppet-infested meadow.

But unlike the Beatles' own playful movies, especially Help and A Hard Day's Night, Taymor's takes a serious approach. She's hampered somewhat by the fact that so much of the film is music, and by lyrics that don't really tell the story she's telling — so she needs to do it all visually. The result is spectacular to look at, intriguing to listen to, intelligently put together, inventive as hell and almost totally uninvolving emotionally.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.