Good Lennon, Bad Lennon

The trouble with biopics of rock ‘n’ roll stars is that you are always aware that you are looking at an actor,  not a character.  Because the character is probably dead.  Or in rehab.  Or in California.  Or something.  There have been a rash of fictional Lennons over the years, not least the recent “The Killing of John Lennon” which you probably haven’t heard of.  Someone I know invested £50.0k in that and well – that was the last they saw of that money.  It was a total rotten tomato.  The last royalty statement came from an office four floors up on Camden High Street and spoke of the princely sum of £327.  For the last three years, following its premiere at a small Western Canadian film festival, it’s been lurking on the True Movies Channel in the small hours with a well deserved audience of 4 because it lost thousands and thousands of pounds.  All it seemed to feature was Mark David Chapman breathing heavily and driving around in a car. 

There is also a film which features fictional Beatles which is so bad it’s hysterical.  You must try to see it.  It’s called “The Linda McCartney Story” and what I love about it is how the title of the film allows you to infer exactly what the subject might be.  It features a John Lennon who is about 6 foot 7 inches tall, speaks with a Colorado accent and goes round to Paul’s gaff in the late 1960s when The Beatles are imploding to throw things at his St John’s Wood front door.  This front door looks like it’s in Arizona.  Whilst throwing a plank of wood, “John” announces “I hate you Pawwl, the Beatles are orvah. Ah’m going back to the Mursey…” or something similar.   When I was a youngster, I went on a two day trip to Geneva with a Welsh Beatles tribute act.   Me and three other girls were their backing singers, and our “John” got rat-arsed all the way from Zurich to Chur on a train and arrived in St Moritz where he carried on drinking without a pause for the following two days.  When we eventually parted ways at Gatwick Airport after two days of singing, he was bright purple. 

In the last three years, however, we have been granted two Lennons.  The first (Lennon Phase I?) was Sam-Taylor Wood’s biopic “Nowhere Boy” which featured the unlikely Lennon of Aaron Johnson who was so good looking – and in fact, possibly too good-looking to be the young Lennon – that Taylor-Wood wasted no time at all in whisking him up as her paramour and conceiving a child with him forthwith.  The second was the bizarre Lennon Naked”, a BBC4 production featuring a scary-looking Christopher Eccleston looming out from under a pale brown wig that looked as if it had been borrowed from Ian Beale’s wife in EastEnders.   Both took segments of Lennon’s life – the late 1950s and the very late 1960s respectively – and presented them as insights into the motivations and character developments of Lennon at that time.  One of them succeeded and one of them failed . 

“Hmmm…..well, the bottom 35% of his face looks a bit like Lennon, let’s cast him!” the BBC thought.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I cannot work out why anyone would cast Christopher Eccleston as John Lennon, other than he has the right pointy nose.  The trouble with Eccleston is that he has the overly-earnest manner that Meryl Streep has on screen.  “Look at me – and see how I’m suffering for you! I’m wearing so much angst on my face – it’s acting, you know!” beams from him.  The trouble with that of course, is that you can’t see what the character is, because all you can see is someone acting very hard.  There is nothing noble in letting your audience see how much you are self-flagellating in order to become your character.  Audiences are not so much interested in watching the process as watching the distilled, finished result.  The whole point is that the audience should not see the strings.  Unfortunately, with Eccleston, he is all process, and wrings performances out of himself as wretchedly as a dogged housemaid wringing out a wet flannel, leaving the audience feeling exhausted.  

In “Lennon Naked”, he flopped about in a white trouser suit in Apple in Savile Row in 1969 – 46 years old, playing 28 years old – and presented a vocal and physical heaviness that told nothing of Lennon’s natural exuberance, playfulness or flamboyancy.  Even when furious with wives or cohorts, people who lived and moved around Lennon have commented on how he would pad about his home and stealthily and quietly as a cat, and would suddenly appear – somewhat unnervingly – across the room from you on the sofa reading the paper.  But with Eccleston we got a slightly creepy, spoilt child who strutted loudly around his Tudorbethan manor-plex in such an idiotic way it was difficult to imagine him having any time to compose any music atall.  Meanwhile, Eccleston’s accent veered haphazardly around the Wirral, passing through Cheshire, Herefordshire and East Riding en route.  The script was a mish-mash of primal-therapeutic outbursts and self-pitying whingeing which rendered the empathetic link between audience and the character of the male lead (so necessary in intensely personal, character led narratives) very problematic.    When he wasn’t having a humour bypass, this Lennon was watching  his soon-to-be-ex-wife Cynthia weeping at the breakfast table at Kenwood, her false eyelashes plopping sadly into the cornflakes.   We were meant to share Lennon’s anger towards his distant father, recently reconciled into the family home in the late 1960s, who had abandoned him as a boy.  Instead, I ended up feeling sorry for the father who had to listen to an awful lot of claptrap whilst Eccleston pouted around his Surrey drawing room doing a lot of “I’m cross” acting and avoiding picking up a guitar, because this was the worst kind of Lennon biopic – that which didn’t have any music.  It was downright dismal.  There was no insight into his character at all, and the whole thing felt laboured.  It was looped in to coincide with BBC’s “Fatherhood” season so dealt almost exclusively with Lennon’s relationship with his father, more or less bypassing his  pseudo-Oedipal relationship with his own deserting mother.  The sight of Eccleston trying to play a 23 year old Lennon in 1964 complete with BBC wig dept moptop was very funny.  I don’t think it was meant to be. 

Christopher Eccleston suddenly realises his agent got the audition information wrong.  He was told he was being seen for BBC “Doctors” and he is well-miffed coz he bought the white coat and everything.  Oh well.  It looks like he’ll have to have a bash at Lennon instead then. 

“Lennon Naked” also provides us with two vastly underwritten roles for both Cynthia Lennon and Yoko Ono.  Despite that this film was set during the breakdown of the Lennon’s marriage, it all too loudly chimed with the unthinking, two-dimensional, recidivist projection of Cynthia Lennon which has always puzzled me slightly.   Too easily, biographers and filmmakers situate her marriage to John in context with his extraordinary second marriage.  She becomes representative of abstract aspects of Lennon’s life he was keen to change.  The problem with this is that she becomes a device rather than a character.    As if the fate of being a rock star wife doesn’t already give her an existence lacking legitimacy, we have to watch as the dramatic depiction of the character of Cynthia is also being denied any legitimacy.  The writer dodges this rare opportunity for insight into the collapse of their marriage.  Instead, Cynthia is awkwardly twisted into a patchwork quilt of parts of Lennon’s life that are about to shift.  It’s all rather odd.  The result is a strange negation of their marriage, a failure to recognise it’s importance as Lennon’s formative adult relationship.   The idea that their marriage would never have happened if they hadn’t had a child on the way, still seems to perpetuate, despite the biographies that challenge this by documenting the details of their relationship and that Lennon made it clear he always intended to marry her anyway.    All too easily, the writer of “Lennon Naked” has slipped in a lazy prototype Cynthia, writing her as a copy & paste  “first wife” from the drawer marked “Rock and Roll first wives [sub-classif. provincial middle class] Possibly a drag.”   Yoko Ono doesn’t escape from this either, being strangely mute throughout. For her, however, the silence indicates something exotically enigmatic.  She is foreign and she is an artist; therefore she is allowed some kind of unspoken depth that ordinary female characters – including Cynthia and her mother Lillian – are unentitled to.

This is a missed opportunity to challenge the only two roles for rock star wives that films usually provide us with.  First, the sweet, undemanding girl, too bourgeois to accommodate our heroes sexual peccadillos and too busy running a home to encourage him to sleep with groupies (Jane Asher, Cynthia Lennon, to some extent Jim Morrison’s Pamela Courson) and the crazy, lunatic control freakish hussy who in determining her own artistic destiny can only ever be the butt of other’s jokes and is never taken seriously (Yoko Ono, Linda McCartney).  “Lennon Naked” was written by a man.  I don’t know that for sure, but, good God, let’s just say I’d bet ya all my Beatles CDs and DVDs on it, ladies.  

Where Sam Taylor-Wood succeeded where the director of “Lennon Naked” failed was that she decided that looking a bit like Lennon wasn’t part of the casting criteria.  You can tell as, yes, dear readers, you Beatle eyes do not deceive you, Johnson is far prettier than Lennon was as a young whippersnapper.  Eccleston looks slightly like Lennon – if Lennon’s face was pulled downwards slightly, given a lined brow and then the image turned and flipped to something altogether more dour – and that’s the problem.  In relying on an actor who looks a bit like him, the actor may turn to concentrate on trying to look a lot like him.  For Johnson, this isn’t an option.  The whole look-a-like-y thing doesn’t exist.  Subsequently, he is able to inhabit the character much more effectively and make it his own.

“Nowhere Boy” is the story of Lennon’s early life in provincial Liverpool, between the time he was reconciled to his estranged mother, Julia, in his late-teens, to his departure for Hamburg shortly after her death.  Rock ‘n’ roll’s matronly aunt is here, of course, Aunt Mimi, with all her Royal Doulton china and her provincial snobbery (“No, John!”  she shouts when he starts fiddling with the radio to look for something skiffle-tastic. “We do not turn Tchaikovsky over!”).  “Nowhere Boy” isn’t really about John Lennon, so much as it’s about the dynamic relationship between two strong women who struggled to claim him and – in a round and about sort of way – both raised him.    The struggle for the teenage John to determine these relationships results in him getting caught in a bizarre love triangle, as the mother who seemed incapable of effective parenting whirls back into his life, confusingly declaring to him that he is “my dream!”, and challenging the matriachal authority established by the kind, if emotionally inexpressive, older Aunt who raised him. 

Aaron Johnson as the young John Lennon.  Rather nice, isn’t he?

Suede brothel-creepers CHECK.  Buddy Holly specs CHECK.  Artistic works lodged neatly under black clad arm CHECK.  Aaron Johnson rocks the late 1950s Liverpool beatnik rocker look as the young John Lennon. Cor.

To this, Taylor-Wood loops in Lennon’s musical development – much of which was courtesy of his bango-playing mother, his initial musical first starts with his band The Quarrymen, and his meeting with the 15 year old Paul McCartney.   All too soon – of course – Julia is killed by a car in 1957, thereby releasing a wave of Lennonesque rage that was to re-echo throughout the years.  The writing (Matt Greenhalgh – also responsible for the excellent Control)  is strong and the fact that Greenhalgh is economic with words (never using 5 words when 2 will do) creates a script of great tension.  Oh – and it’s full of music!  Johnson even learned to play the guitar and sing.  Suck on that, Eccleston.  At the end of the film there was a sense that Johnson plays the third supporting role in this film, despite being in nearly every scene; with the major impact and drama coming from Kristen Scott-Thomas’s Aunt Mimi and Anne Marie-Duff’s Julia.  These are women – the mother and aunt of a rock star who – wait for it – wait for it – actually have properly written roles to play!  Who knew?  It is a film which engages in the human – rather than the superhuman elements of Lennon’s life – and a presents us with a conventional storytelling technique which stands it in good stead.  Most importantly, the characters are well-rounded and drawn beautifully.    “Nowhere Boy” provides us with a fascinating aspect  into Lennon’s teenage years. Sam Taylor-Wood and Matt Greenhalgh have illustrated how it was two strong women who made John Lennon, and gave two actresses that very rare thing in film –  well-written three dimensional female roles for actresses aged in their late 30s and late 40s.    Imagine that – if you can.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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