Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Lennon Naked (Blast! Films/BBC, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The film was Lennon Naked, yet another biopic of at least one of the Beatles (and John tends to be the focus of virtually every movie made about the Beatles, not only because he founded the group in the first place but because he was by far the most dramatically compelling character -- the one with the most harrowing backstory and the one most in touch with, and eager to share, his most wrenching emotional traumas) and one which focused so relentlessly on his dysfunctional relationships with his relatives (particularly his father) and his first wife, Cynthia Powell, that the reviewers I've read slammed it in ways that reminded me about Grover Sales' dismissal of the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues -- that it was like making a film about Van Gogh, eliminating Gauguin and all the other real-life artists he knew as characters, and showing him cutting his ear off for the full running time.

Lennon Naked, directed by Edmund Coulthard from a script by Robert Jones (a disclaimer at the front of the film informs us, "The following drama is based on real events, although some scenes are the invention of the writer"), begins in 1964, when Brian Epstein (Rory Kinnear) arranges a meeting betwen John Lennon (Christopher Eccleston, who's quite effective and credible-looking in the role -- he's got both the appearance and the acid quality of Lennon's speaking voice totally down -- even though he made this film at 46, six years older than Lennon was when he was killed) and his long-estranged father Fred (Christopher Fairbank, whose performance is marvelous in its pathos even though he's so much shorter, skinnier and more dumpy-looking than Eccleston it's hard to believe in them as father and son). In the car Lennon toys with both Brian and the chauffeur, pretending to the driver that he and Brian are lovers (it's interesting how the real Brian Epstein was a self-hating closet queen but he seems to become more "out" with every movie incarnation of him) and making no secret of his nervousness about meeting his dad and his continuing bitterness over his father's having abandoned him when he was six.

It turns out that Robert Jones' reading of Lennon's life centers around a "Rosebud" moment that determines his future course just as thoroughly as that scene when the young Charlie Kane got pulled away from his mother and his sled: they were at a seaside resort when Fred Lennon announced to his wife Julia (they were already separated by then and Julia was living with Ronnie Duykins, a Liverpool waiter John Lennon referred to in interviews as "Twitchy" because he had a chronically blinking eye) that he was moving to New Zealand and giving his son the choice: stay with his mother in Liverpool or come with him.

The way it's dramatized in the film (which makes a powerful scene even though it's not the way virtually any Beatles or Lennon biographer has told it), John at first said he was going with his dad, then as he saw his mom walking away with her head bowed down in sadness changed his mind and ran after her, only to be told that she was going to turn him over to her sister, the legendary Aunt Mimi, to raise -- so at age six John Lennon was simultaneously abandoned by both his parents. (One wouldn't know from this film that John afterwards reconciled with his mother, whom he recalled as a free spirit and who bought him his first guitar and taught him how to play it, and John was far more devastated by her subsequent death in an auto accident than he'd been by her putting him with Mimi in the first place -- or that the near-simultaneous death of Paul McCartney's mother from cancer gave them a powerful bond that made them, at least for a time, far more than just two young kids playing together in a band.)

Whatever its accuracy, though, Jones' conceptualization of Lennon as a young man permanently stuck in the traumas of his youth and unable to enjoy either his career or his fame works powerfully as drama and eloquently frames many of the familiar incidents in John's life -- his first art show with Yoko, the making of the Two Virgins album (they sat up all night making amateur tapes and then had sex for the first time when they were done), the bed-in for peace (and the angry confrontation with reporter Gloria Emerson, played by Debora Weston), his meeting with Dr. Arthur "Primal Scream" Janov and the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album that resulted (though we don't get to see John record it -- in fact the film doesn't include any footage of Lennon functioning as a creative musician), and his final decision to leave Great Britain and move to New York in November 1971 (and I hadn't realized until I saw the ending credit of this film that he never returned to the country of his birth at any time during the remaining nine years of his life).

One could pick apart Lennon Naked as biography, but on its own terms it works as drama even though, presumably due to copyright problems, no music by the Beatles appears: we hear snatches of four of Lennon's solo recordings ("Mother," "God," "Out the Blue" and, rather anachronistically, "I'm Losing You" from Double Fantasy played over a scene of John and Yoko arguing early in their relationship) and of one of Yoko's more lyrical recordings, "Remember Love," and during an early sequence taking place while the Beatles are still together we hear "Money (That's What I Want)," one of the greatest of the Beatles' early recordings -- only we don't hear their version, we hear the original hit by Motown artist Barrett Strong instead.

Director Coulthard overdoes the symbolism a bit -- one starts to dread the prospect of yet another scene of Lennon submerging himself in water, apparently ready to drown himself -- but overall this is a good movie, and the acting is first-rate throughout except for one jarring exception: Andrew Scott as Paul McCartney. Scott looks the part, all right, but his attempt to do Paul's speaking voice comes off sounding more like the Monty Python "Gumby" character than the real deal. One imdb.com commentator refers to Lennon as "a man-child who did not mature," and though that's certainly arguable (Lennon's real biography shows a much more complex, multi-faceted man than the one that emerges here) and it's hard to reconcile the almost psychopathically self-absorbed creature we see here with the Lennon who wrote "Imagine," the film powerfully presents its version of John Lennon and emerges as genuinely moving drama on its own terms.