Rock Docs And Biopics Fridays: Lennon At 70 – Imagine There’s No Movies!
I doubt that I’m the first to point this out, but John Lennon would have been 70 years old this Saturday (October 9) if he hadn’t been cut down thirty years ago by a mentally unstable egotist with delusions of grandeur and a pathetic plan for fame. That guy’s now behind bars, long may he rust. Lennon is dead. More’s the pity. While you and I can only imagine there’s no crazed assassins (it’s easy if you try), we are left to mourn and celebrate the imperfect but visionary slain Beatle on milestones such as these. A troubled searcher with as many issues as any mortal person, John was no saint but he did inspire generations (and continues to do so) with his music and, for better or worse, introduced “activism” to the pop star regimen. (Elvis Presley’s deputization as a Nixon Narc doesn’t count). I’ve said it before, no Lennon activism means no Geldof / Live Aid, and by extension no Bono and RED campaign… etc.
On Fridays, here at The Pulmyears Music Blog, we sometimes put together little movie lists to get you going on the weekend. Traditionally, these are all films you can download, rent or buy on DVD or streaming (and the usual channels). I call these columns Rock Docs And Biopics Fridays. Today, in honour of the 70 candles John will never see, I humbly submit an imperfect and incomplete list of Lennon Related Films and Documentaries, to help with your own observances.
Keep in mind, I have deliberately left The Beatles movies, A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Yellow Submarine, Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Be, off this list. But if you have a suggestion for the list of Lennon films that I have not mentioned here, please add it in the comments section of this entry.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon discussed that period AFTER The Beatles, when John went on marches and stirred up trouble in the States, drawing the ire of one Richard M. Nixon, who rallied the forces of “justice” against the Lennons. Wonderfully restrained on the fan worship tip, this is one of the first docs that tried to understand Lennon’s activism, while also seeking to understand the climate of the times he lived and how some of those issues – fear mongering, scapegoating and silencing of opposition – continue to this day. Also features Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, Bobby Seale, Tom Smothers and even Walter Cronkite. Must see.
Imagine: John Lennon (1988). Directed by Andrew Solt.
Released at what seemed to me, at the time, to be a relatively short time after John’s death (it was in fact 8 years later), Solt’s film is more of a loving scrapbook than a probing study. Still, it’s what I’d call a warm and delightful celebration of Lennonalia, made with complete co-operation of Yoko and the estate, which opened up a wealth of stock footage and audio tapes used as self-narration. There are valuable unreleased recordings in the film such as the acoustic demo of “Real Love” (recorded in 1979) and an early rehearsal version of “Imagine”. I read online that the whole documentary project came about as a counter-attack to the release of writer Albert Goldman’s trashy biography, The Lives of John Lennon. Fair enough!
Classic Albums: John Lennon Plastic Ono Band (2008). Directed by Matthew Longfellow (for Classic Albums series)
“I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” says Lennon in this episode of Classic Albums, “I think it’s realistic and it’s true to the me that has been developing over the years. It’s me, and nobody else.” Lennon was working, at the time, on the Plastic Ono Band release (1970), produced with Phil Spector, which featured some of John’s most howlingly personal songs. He’d been primal screaming with Dr. Yanov and now was ready to share. This DVD is about 37 minutes longer than the version that aired on broadcast television, and features interviews with Ringo Starr, Klaus Voormann, Arthur Yanov and Jann Wenner plus valuable insights from the recording engineers Richard Lush and Phil McDonald. This one’s right up my alley, considering what I’ve been writing about of late. A must see.
John & Yoko’s Year of Peace (2000). Directed by Paul McGrath.
“All we are saying…” Let’s roll some tape at the bed-in for peace in Montreal, as seen from a very personal and very Canadian perspective. Paul McGrath and Alan Lysaght put together this film for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and it was narrated by CBC’s Laurie Brown. Having grown up in Toronto (one of only three international bed-in sites), when this stuff was going down, I found this one was deep on personal resonance, yet perhaps it was a little light on new insight. Still you gotta love the footage of the Lennons meeting Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and Canada’s own media guru Marshall McLuhan. Another scrapbook movie about the time when my village met the global village.
LENNONYC (2010). Directed by Michael Epstein.
In truth, I haven’t seen this yet, but I will be watching PBS on Monday, November 22nd, when it makes it’s television debut. I know some people who have seen it (it was at some festivals already) and I’m looking forward to it because it deals with how Lennon, born a Northern English lad, came to embrace Manhattan in the bitter end. “John Lennon legitimately became a New Yorker,” says Epstein in the press materials for his film. “And New York was just the right filmmaking lens where you could talk about his political activism, his music and the weight that he carried escaping the shadow of the Beatles.” The PBS site says that the film includes never-before heard studio recordings from the Double Fantasy sessions and never-before-seen outtakes from Lennon in concert and home movies that have only recently been transferred to video. It also features exclusive interviews with Ms. Ono, who cooperated extensively with the production and offers an unprecedented level of access, as well as with artists who worked closely with Lennon during this period, including Elton John and photographer Bob Gruen (who took the iconic photograph of Lennon in front of the skyline wearing a “New York City” t-shirt). And hey, New Yorkers, for John’s birthday, on Saturday, October 9, Central Park’s Summerstage will screen the film in the open air, beginning at 7pm. Eerily close to the spot where Lennon’s journey concluded.
The Hours And Times (1991). Directed by Christopher Munch.
A kind of fantasia on the popular notion that purported heterosexual John Lennon went on a gay romp in Spain with openly (to his friends) gay manager Brian Epstein, in 1963, as Beatlemania was in its infancy. Entirely a work of fiction, based on a possibly true story, the film was made safely after both men were dead, and while its a tad prurient and a little creepy, it still works on some level. If it works at all, and the court is still out on that one, it’s down to the fine performances of the actors involved. While David Angus looks nothing like Brian Epstein, he gives the character of Epstein a realistic sense of longing, but it is Ian Hart’s Lennon that you’ll remember. Hart was so convincing as Lennon that he was cast again as Lennon, only three years later. (Hart may be to Lennon what actor Michael Sheen is to Tony Blair).
Backbeat (1994) Directed by Iain Softley.
“He Had To Choose Between His Best Friend… The Woman He Loved… And The Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band In the World.” That was the tagline for this strangely compelling, yet sadly wanting, biopic from 1994. Hart is once again spot-on as Lennon and Steven Dorff gives it is his best James Dean as painter and early Beatle Stu Sutcliffe, the real star of the film, which deals with the Beatles in their pre-mania Hamburg woodshedding years. Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks) plays Stu’s girlfriend (and early Fab Photog) Astrid Kircherr and most of the action is centred on the erotic and homoerotic tension between Kircherr, Lennon and Sutcliffe. The musical sequences are actually pretty cool, instead of going Beatlemania style and having sound-alike versions (or lipsynching to the Star Klub recordings) the filmmakers hired a post-grunge supergroup comprised of Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs), Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Dave Grohl (Nirvana), and Don Fleming (Gumball). They did, however, use the Tony Sheridan recording of “My Bonny”.
I have to thank my friend Mark C. for sending me this on DVD as I don’t know if it’s even commercially available yet. Going back to the Arthur Yanov, primal scream, Plastic Ono Band album period, this film features actor Christopher Eccleston as an unconvincing Lennon and Naoko Mori as a not-so-much Yoko Ono. The events of the story are all well-documented, Lennon meets Yoko at the Indica Gallery, Lennon divorces Cynthia (Claudie Blakley), and has a tumultuous and painful reunion with his wayfaring seaman father Freddie Lennon (Christopher Fairbank). My favourite moments were in the Apple Records boardroom when Lennon announces to his Fab business partners that he is going it alone. Actor Andrew Scott (previously seen in HBO’s John Adams) nails the McCartney character in a way that I’ve never seen, and Michael Colgan’s depiction of Apple Press Officer Derek Taylor, whom I’ve researched in my own studies, was uncanny. Still, the film can’t help but feel a little weird, what with all these people parading around as Lennon and company.
Nowhere Boy (2009). Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood.
This is just being released here in North America, but when it came out in the U.K. last year, critics approved and BAFTA nominations (and wins) followed. Again, I must thank Mark C. for the advance bootleg (which I have since destroyed). As any Lennon scholar knows, much of the pain and anger that surfaced in those Yanov screams, had its roots in the events of his childhood, events depicted in Sam Taylor-Wood’s film. It begins in 1955, as 15 year old Lennon, portrayed quite well by Aaron Johnson (Kick Ass), is just beginning to get into trouble back in Liverpool. He rarely sees his mum, Julia, played by Anne-Marie Duff, and is living with his Auntie Mimi, played compellingly by Kristin Scott Thomas. So many of Lennon’s future troubles relating to women, relating to his bandmates and relating to authority are imprinted on him during this domestic breakdown. Then, of course, comes Elvis Presley and rock and roll. Maybe it’s because it was directed by a woman, and loosely based on the memoirs of John’s sister, Julia Baird, but it’s a far better portrait than most. Lennon on film has been dodgy in the past but I’ve got to admit it’s getting better all the time. It can’t get no worse.