Shiny Shelf

Lennon Naked

By Mags L Halliday on 25 June 2010

BBC4’s fatherhood season includes one of the channel’s drama biopics, this time on John Lennon.

The 90 minute dramatic biopic has become something of a standard for BBC4. They echo a play format, looking at a key period through a lens. So ‘Gracie!’ looked at how a popular musical hall entertainer came to be reviled during world war two, and ‘The Curse of Steptoe’ looked at how Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Bramble tore into each other as the only way to escape the trap of their most famous characters.

One thing you notice about the increasingly long list of these biopics is that they are nearly always posthumous. Unlike most of their biopic subjects, though, Lennon could just as well be alive.

Like ‘Worried About The Boy’, the biopic on Boy George with special advisor George O’Dowd, ‘Lennon Naked’ follows a preferred narrative. In this case, it’s the one in which John and Yoko are perfect soul mates, a story that suits Yoko perfectly but glosses over the truth.

The film opens with John meeting his father for the first time in nearly twenty years, with flashbacks to the young John trying to decide between his separating parents. John himself is shown as a bad father to Julian Lennon, eventually leaving his first wife and child for Yoko Ono. Walking away from the Beatles, he undergoes primal therapy and confronts his father.

The closure point is 1971, as Lennon and Ono fly off to New York. The implication of the final title is that everything was bliss until Lennon was shot in 1980.

This is not true.

Lennon left Ono for eighteen months in the early 1970s, and – despite the drink and drug excesses of his ‘lost weekend’ – re-established contact with Julian. Only after that did he return to Ono and become a house husband, becoming primary care giver to Sean Lennon.

If you want to use Lennon’s story to say things about the cycle of bad fathering and how it can be broken – Lennon’s treatment of Julian is drawn as a clear parallel to Freddie’s abandonment of John – then you need to include the rapprochement with Julian and the five years as a stay-at-home dad. Instead the only hint of Lennon breaking the cycle is his pain as Ono miscarries.

There are always problems with biopics on the Beatles: one reason the better ones tend to be about the pre-Epstein era is because that time only exists in monochrome photos and a handful of scratchy recordings.

‘Lennon Naked’ picks the most iconic period instead, covering 1964-1971. It throws in characters without filling in the background. Pete Shotton walking away is meaningless because he’s a cipher. We’re told he has been friends with Lennon forever but he’s interchangeable with Derek Taylor and John Dunbar.

It also casts someone older than Lennon was at the time of his death to play him. Christopher Eccleston has the nose, but he’s tall and broad. When Lennon and McCartney face off in the Apple boardroom, you should sense two men of equal size and stature fighting for dominance, but their McCartney is overpowered by Eccleston.

On the plus side, Naoko Mori is good as Yoko Ono, capturing the idea of seriousness that drew Lennon to her. Christopher Fairbank is plausible as the AWOL Freddie Lennon, a little, shabby man whose son has become bigger than Jesus. And Rory Kinnear was a minor treat as Brian Epstein.

They get around the problem of Eccleston playing a 24 year old at the start by mimicking ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and inter-cutting with newsreel footage. But this fades as the film continues, and there’s a curious insistence on recreating press conferences. If you’re going to imagine scenes for dramatic purposes, as the opening credit tells us, then why knock the drama out by recreating so much that actually exists on film?

Ultimately, this film fails in multiple ways. It relies too much on an audience’s pre-existing knowledge, whilst not really revealing anything or shedding new light on Lennon the man.

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