John Lennon: Three films
Mark Glancy takes a look at the life and creative genius of John Lennon as seen through the eyes of three films.
John Lennon was born during an air raid on Liverpool in 1940, and it could be said his life never quietened. It included a number of family tragedies, his fame in the Beatles, his outspoken political beliefs and his assassination in 1980. To date, filmmakers have been interested mainly in his youth, and the experiences and influences that led him out of Liverpool and on to the world stage. Interestingly, none has followed the usual path of biopics and made a saint of the subject. Lennon may be a creative genius in each of these films, but he is also angry and arrogant.
1. Nowhere Boy
Dir: Sam Taylor-Wood, UK, 2009. With Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, David Threlfall
The opening scene of Nowhere Boy offers a brief but unmistakable reference to the Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night (1964). The young John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) is seen running along a portico, while on the soundtrack the opening chord of the song, A Hard Day’s Night, gives way to the sound of screaming fans. But Lennon’s carefree dash is just a dream, and it comes to an abrupt halt when the teenager is woken by his stern Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who scolds him for oversleeping. This is the film’s portrait of Lennon in a nutshell: he runs toward rock music and fame as a means of escaping his troubled upbringing in Mimi’s middle-class, suburban household.
The film spans the years of Lennon’s adolescence and touches on the key moments of his early musical career. He becomes fascinated by rock music, learns to play the guitar, forms a ‘skiffle’ band called the Quarrymen (named for the Quarry Bank school he attended), meets the younger but more musically able Paul McCartney, and, in the ending, heads off to play gigs in Hamburg.
However, there is more emphasis on Lennon’s upbringing than his music, and a litany of family troubles unfolds. At the heart of the tensions is the struggle between the strait-laced Aunt Mimi, who has raised John since he was five years old, and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), a seemingly carefree woman who lives nearby but allows Mimi to raise her son.
With its family traumas, repressive suburban atmosphere, and John’s teenage angst, Nowhere Boy at times harks back to 1950s melodrama, and especially to the fraught family relations of Rebel Without a Cause. It is a subtler film than that, though, and it steps back from caricaturing either Mimi or Julia. Instead, it suggests that John derived his steely temperament from his aunt and his rebellious hedonism from his mother.
Nowhere Boy also offers an evocative recreation of 1950s Britain, and especially a moment when the country was moving out of austerity and into the cultural upheaval of the 1960s.
But is it accurate?
The film contends that John was haunted by his childhood, and many of the incidents it depicts – including the disturbing scene where the five-year-old is asked to choose between his estranged parents – are true. But the suggestion that John did not see his mother again until he was a teenager is exaggerated and so, too, is the fight between John and Paul McCartney. At the time the film was released, McCartney allowed that Nowhere Boy “captures the essence” of this period of Lennon’s life, but he also insisted that John never punched him.
Dir: Iain Softley, UK, 1994. With Stephen Dorff, Sheryl Lee, Ian Hart
Backbeat picks up almost exactly where Nowhere Boy leaves off: in 1960, as the Beatles head off to Hamburg. In this film, Lennon (Ian Hart) is more clearly Liverpudlian in accent and intonation. He is also an edgier, angrier and tougher character, which by most accounts is correct.
Aunt Mimi’s genteel influence is not so apparent here. This is a film made out of Beatles legends. The band plays in the Kaiserkeller, a basement bar in the heart of Hamburg’s red light district, where they alternate on stage with striptease acts. Playing six shows a night for an unruly audience, they churn out rough and ready cover versions of songs by Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, and they slowly hone their craft.
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The dramatic focus is on the triangular relationship between Lennon and his best friend, Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff). Sutcliffe was the Beatles’ bass player in these early days, but while in Hamburg he falls in love with the art student and photographer Astrid Kircherr (Sheryl Lee). Kircherr introduces Stuart and John to a more bohemian side of Hamburg, and she also moulds the Beatles’ look, taking stylish photographs of them and replacing their ‘Teddy Boy’ haircuts with ‘mop tops’. Lennon is dismayed, though, when the romance between Stuart and Astrid leads Stuart to give up the band, remain in Hamburg and pursue his own career as a painter.
But is it accurate?
There are some chronological anomalies here. These are not substantial and serve dramatic purposes. Likewise, the film can be accused of overplaying Sutcliffe’s importance (even at this stage in the Beatles’ history) and underplaying Paul McCartney’s. Yet the tragic ending – Sutcliffe dies of a brain haemorrhage on the very day the other Beatles returned to Hamburg – is not a scriptwriter’s contrivance. Astrid really did break the news of Sutcliffe’s sudden death to John when he arrived at Hamburg airport in April 1962.
3. The Hours and Times
Dir: Christopher Munch, UK, 1991. With David Angus, Ian Hart
The Hours and Times takes us forward in Lennon’s life by one more step. It is set in April 1963, just after the Beatles scored their first UK hit singles (with Love Me Do and Please Please Me) but before they went to the USA. The story is not about the beginnings of Beatlemania and indeed not a single Beatles song is heard. It is a much smaller film than that, focused tightly on the friendship between Lennon (Ian Hart) and the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein (David Angus), and a holiday they took together in Spain that month.
Epstein was gay, and so their holiday prompted gossip and speculation. The film ponders this aspect of their relationship, but it is also more broadly concerned with the grounds for their friendship. Epstein was an accomplished middle-class businessman, cultured and polite, from a closely knit Jewish family. Lennon, on the other hand, is portrayed as unworldly, uncultured and indifferent to the needs of others, including his wife Cynthia (heard on the telephone, but not seen).
As in Backbeat, he is portrayed by Ian Hart, but this film offers an even stormier characterisation of the man. The film suggests that it is the ‘times’ that brings these two very different men together – that is, the breaking down of social barriers in the Sixties – and it also portrays their ‘hours’ together as laden with poignancy. The two men talk about the future, what it may hold for them and how they might be remembered. Of course, both
were to die prematurely (Epstein of a drug overdose in 1967).
But is it accurate?
If there is one Beatles song that should be in the film, it is You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, which Lennon is rumoured to have written for Epstein. But that might be too definite for a film which begins with the statement “the following film is entirely fictitious” and thus draws attention to its own speculative nature. The slow pace, inconclusive storyline and black and white photography mean that The Hours and Times is unlikely to be a crowd pleaser, but it won rave reviews among fans of independent films, and diehard Lennon fans would not want to miss it.
Other films about John Lennon
(Dir: Edmund Coulthard, UK, 2010)
This recent BBC film, starring Christopher Eccleston as John Lennon, picks up the story of Lennon’s life where The Hours and Times left off.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand
(Dir: Robert Zemeckis, USA, 1978)
A fictional film about Beatlemania rather than the Beatles, set around their 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
A Hard Day’s Night
(Dir: Richard Lester, UK 1964)
Part documentary and part pop video, this innovative film has been called the “Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals”. Lennon plays himself as a joker.
Mark Glancy teaches film history at Queen Mary University of London. He is the author of When Hollywood Loved Britain (Manchester University Press, 1999) and The 39 Steps: A British Film Guide (Tauris, 2003)