Lennon on the Chopping Block

Lennon Naked
Directed by Edmund Coulthard

ItÕs been 30 years since John Lennon was gunned down in New York City. Had he lived, the legend would have been 70 years old this year. I remember December 8, 1980: Every one of my friends in shocked silence, glued to the radio that was playing ŅAcross the UniverseÓ for the 18th time. It was the moment that marked the end of an era and the beginning of another, just like the blackened layer of ash that separates the Cretaceous and Tertiary.

Lennon Naked, written by Robert Jones and directed by Edmund Coulthard, is among the crop of books and films coming out to commemorate the life and legacy of John Lennon. Like the feeling wedded to the 12-8-80 in our memory, Naked is about Lennon's pain, in particular his relationship with the absent father who reappears after 17 years as a result of his sonÕs fame.

As such, Lennon Naked, despite its noble intentions and admirable execution, joins the rank of biopics that attempt to explain an artistÕs work as a reaction to some trauma, childhood- or otherwise. Immortal Beloved (1994, starring Gary Oldman) infuriated me by drawing a straight line between BeethovenÕs Ninth Symphony and his abusive childhood. In contrast, I loved Julie TaymorÕs Frida, although I was never a Kahlo fan. The filmmaker seemed to grasp something of the lust for life that made Frida bigger than her crippling injury.

If youÕve heard the raw emotions Lennon laid out for the whole world, you know there is no easy way to account for the outrageous bravery that continues to inspire all who hear it. Sure, itÕs an artistÕs job to express what s/he is going though, but with such honesty and brutality? ThatÕs where the mystery of a creative act comes in: It was an extraordinary chemistry of the times and the man himself that resulted in those cries from the soul. What filmmakers so often forget is that you can make therapy out of art but you canÕt make art out of therapy.

In a series of picture-perfect re-creations of scenes embedded in our memory from photographs, the film follows Lennon as his long-lost father appears on the scene, and through his strained relationships with wife Cynthia and the band. Into this world, Yoko Ono drops as an answer to his prayers: an escape from his chaotic inner and outer life. Indeed the recording of Two Virgins is made to look like a random excursion, a daytrip.

As Lennon, Christopher Eccleston is quietly acerbic, with a cool exterior. Although itÕs a little hard at first to sustain the illusion (an energetic 23-year-old played by an actor going on 50), his Lennon grows more than believable as his subject matures. Similarly, casting a young, pretty and uninteresting Yoko Ono (as was the case in the TV movie John and Yoko: A Love Story in 1985) would have reduced this incredible woman to a mere groupie, and Lennon to a mere rock star. But Ono here (Naoko Mori), like EcclestonÕs Lennon, is decidedly un-vacuous (with apologies to Mori, I feel obligated to point out that Yoko was a babe in her own time).

Briefly illuminating OnoÕs intuitive and poetic temperament that Lennon found so intriguing, the film raises our expectations. Was Yoko the catalyst that pried him away from his clan and ŅcultureÓ? The force that stood by him through his vigorous unraveling of knotted emotions? Unfortunately, clouds obscure her light and warmth as she suffers a series of miscarriages and is reduced to a ghost in a white robe who whispers ŅIÕm sorry.Ó

LennonÕs primal scream therapy precedes the climatic scene in which he plays his recording of ŅMotherÓ to his father. Eccelston-as-LennonÕs measured emotions combust with a lifetime of anger and hurt. True or not, it's a scene we all wish really took place. Lennon wails, ŅMummy donÕt go, Daddy come home,Ó stretching and bending the syllables as if his foot were on an effects pedal connected to his voicebox. Unfortunately, the words primal scream hang in the air; itÕs practically a subtitle.

The tension is broken when the first notes of the next song fades in. ŅI donÕt believe in Jesus.Ó I donÕt believe in ElvisÉI donÕt believe in the Beatles, I believe in me, just Yoko and meÉas the couple, in their white wedding outfits, board the plane taking them to the New World. LennonÕs statement of self-assertion and at least a partial healing becomes too convenient a relief, accompanying the coupleÕs flight into a promised land.

In a scene meant to justify the title, John and Yoko dodge pestering fans and duck into their London flat to feverishly rip each otherÕs clothes off ŠŠ to stand naked in front of a white backdrop, with the camera on a timer. In the end, the man himself was more naked than Lennon Naked.
ŠŠ Rika Ohara

Airing on PBSÕ Masterpiece Contemporary, Sunday, November 21