Has anyone in modern popular culture been the subject of as many biographical films as John Lennon? Every portion of his too-brief life has, it seems, gotten the docu-drama treatment: his boyhood and teen years (Nowhere Boy), the embryonic stages of his band (Backbeat, Birth of the Beatles), his relationship with manager Brian Epstein (The Hours and Times), his time with Yoko Ono (John and Yoko: A Love Story), his estrangement from Paul McCartney (Two of Us)... hell, even his murder has been the subject of not one, but two fictionalized accounts (Chapter 27 and The Killing of John Lennon). The BBC's new drama Lennon Naked takes, as its focus, his relationship with his father and struggle for independence--from his past, from his first wife, from his bandmates. It is a flawed and somewhat shallow account, but it goes to some interesting places, and Christopher Eccleston (Shallow Grave, 28 Days Later, Doctor Who) is dynamite in the leading role.
Writer Robert Jones begins his story in 1964, at the height of Beatlemania. Epstein escorts John to meet his father Freedie (Christopher Fairbank), who disappeared from his life when John was a little boy. John is understandably upset that his father seemingly sees him worthy of his attention now that he's a superstar; their first scene, while dipping into some unavoidable melodrama, is unquestionably affecting. Skip ahead to 1967, when Lennon is finally ready to reconnect with his dad, taking him into his home and into his life.
As he gets tenuously closer with his dad, he becomes more distant from his wife Cynthia (Claudie Blakely), feeling that she doesn't understand him, that his existence with her has become too bourgeois. He finds an antidote for that in his sudden, impulsive, all-in fling with Yoko (Naoko Mori); their first scenes are among the film's best, as the filmmakers explore the tangible connection between the pair, and push probingly to understand their dynamic.
Throughout the film, Jones and director Edumnd Coulthard try, admirably, to understand Lennon as a person by replicating those private moments. An opening title informs us that the film is based on fact, "although some scenes are the invention of the writer," and while some of those composite scenes and boiled-down encounters have a brisk efficiency (Paul: "Couldn't have put it better myself." John: "I know"), many are simplified to a point of abstraction. We end up, particularly in the back half of the film, watching a kind of newsreel of scenes explored in greater depth, and with greater sophistication, in Lennon documentaries and other docudramas; we check off the expected scenes, which are touched upon but mostly left unbothered by the accelerated treatment and soapy dialogue.
But director Coulthard is a filmmaker of skill; he deftly intermingles the transitioning documentary footage and has a sharp visual sense, often finding the perfect imagery to put the simplified story across. The film's water motif is a touch heavy-handed, but well-employed, and Coulthard (and the actors) manage to paint a heartbreaking portrait of his relationship with son Julian in just a few glances. In contrast to Nowhere Boy, which places great import on Lennon's fractured relationship with his mother, Lennon Naked holds father Freddie as the key to Lennon's personal and psychological ennui, as unlocked by his work with a primal-scream therapist in the early 1970s. In the scene of that breakthrough, and the following sequence (in which he plays the resultant song, "Mother," for his father), Eccleston's work is powerful and somewhat devastating; he may be a bit too old for the role, but he inhabits it completely.
From the dense, full black-and-white imagery (aping the style of A Hard Day's Night) in the opening scene through the nostalgia-tinged glow of the ultra-bright late 60s sequences, Lennon Naked's anamorphic widescreen image is crisp and attractive, warmly saturated and natural, albeit with some scattered softness.
The 2.0 surround track is strong as well, ably mixing music cues and environmental sounds with the dialogue track, which is clear and audible even considering the thick (and occasionally tentative) Liverpool accents.
English subtitles are also available.
Though it is primarily focused on only about five years (ending with John and Yoko leaving England for New York--which makes it a pretty good double feature with the new doc LennonNYC), Lennon Naked's scant 82-minute running time and emphasis on family melodrama keeps it from truly understanding (or at least articulating) who John Lennon was, as a person or a phenomenon. But there is much in it to admire--specifically, the work of Christopher Eccleston, whose full-bodied leading performance can sell even the clunkiest moments. Lennon Naked is sketchy, but not without merit.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.