They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
—Philip Larkin, “This Be the Verse”
At a press conference near the end of Lennon Naked, Yoko Ono (Naoko Mori) and John Lennon (Christopher Eccleston) explain their reasons for leaving Britain. In a voice just above a whisper, she asserts that in New York, she and John are treated as artists, the implication being that in Britain they are not. Yet the art for which Lennon is so famous barely appears in the preceding 90 minutes, leaving a yawning hole at the heart of this biopic.
Around that hole, the movie, which comes to Masterpiece Contemporary on PBS 21 November (and is available online 11/22-12/21), assembles a portrait of a troubled artist. Early on, Lennon asserts, “An artist has to destroy as well as create.” But the film focuses so intently on the destruction and applies so distorted a lens of Romantic individualism to Lennon that he becomes, paradoxically, nothing more than a morose, self-obsessed Liverpudlian, blessed with an acerbic wit and cursed with delusions of grandeur. Despite Edward Coulthard’s skillful direction, and an exceptional performance by Eccleston, Lennon Naked ultimately seems as hollow as the Lennon Myth.
Part of the problem lies in the drama’s old-fashioned, Freudian tilt: the film returns again and again to Lennon’s childhood. Not only did his mother Julia invest her youthful prime in serial monogamy and children more favored than John. He also had to contend with the loss of two fathers, his biological father, Alfred (Christopher Fairbank) who left the family permanently when John was a child, and Brian Epstein (Rory Kinnear), the clever businessman and promoter who in six years transformed the Beatles from scruffy club musicians into what Lennon, in the film, calls, “the nation’s little pets,” before dying of a drug overdose in 1967.
Snatches of a beautiful day at the beach with Freddie swim into Lennon’s memory and LSD flashbacks throughout the film, until the son’s full recollection of the day provides an emotional denouement. His father asks him to choose between his parents, and the boy finally runs after his mother, only to be told, as his father disappears from sight, that he’ll be living with his Aunty Mimi from now on. Shot exquisitely with handheld camera and sun-soaked, color-saturated images that capture both the unreality of memory and the corrosion of nostalgia, the sequence ultimately offers only facile insight into a complicated life. Can the musical phenomenon that was John Lennon really be explained by a lifetime’s brooding on one afternoon?
This obsession with childhood trauma does provide for an interesting portrait of Freddie, who emerges from a 17-year exile to weasel in and out of John’s life until he leaves for the United States. In a sly performance, supported by some of the best writing in the script, Fairbank steals every scene in which he appears, whether playing drawing room football with his grandson Julian (Charlie Coulthard), or confessing that he’s marrying a woman nearly 40 years his junior.
In Freddie’s final encounter with his son, Lennon plays plangent refrains from his song “Mother,” during which he excoriates his neglectful parents. When he snaps off the tape recorder, he asks his father what he thought of “that.” Slumped, in his bookie’s overcoat in a pristine white armchair, Freddie resolutely refuses to take John’s bait and justify himself. Instead, he deflects every aggressive question by addressing the music, its dissimilarity to the Beatles, its more aggressive sound. Thwarted by his father’s unwillingness to play the blame game, Lennon ends the scene as a petulant guy in a white suit, whining, “What about me?”
The film might have provided some balance to this perspective by illuminating Lennon’s love affair with Yoko Ono, an encounter that can still, 40 years later, reduce now senior-citizen fans of the Beatles to spitting venom. While Lennon here claims that she “saved” and “freed” him, the film shows very little evidence of this process. Only one scene hints at a relationship of tenderness and joy: the long night of mutual discovery when Yoko first visits John at his country home while Cynthia (Claudie Blakley) and Julian are absent on holiday. In grainy, slightly unfocussed shots, the camera caresses both Eccleston and Mori as they talk and touch, then scream and coo, in a foreshadowing of primal therapy, into a tape recorder. The patience and pathos of this scene hint at the coup de foudre that clearly bound the real-life couple together. But the film draws back from this intimacy, and instead recreates the iconic news photos of the day, their arrest for drug possession, his sleeping beside her hospital bed, the unsmiling Yoko, drowning in hair, silent but ever-present at John’s side.
The remaining players suffer from the same dulled iconography. Cynthia is a placid caricature of a working-class girl elevated unexpectedly to wealth and the stockbroker belt, well groomed and passive. The remaining Beatles function more like noises-off than full-blooded collaborators in some of the 1960s’ most complex music. And the film only once captures the sheer youth of Lennon and the band. Near the beginning, John and Epstein chat with a group of schoolgirls demanding autographs, and John teases the gay Epstein that he has never been kissed by womankind, “or unkind.” Epstein pushes the girl eager to be the first away, and John chases him, whooping and goosing, back to their waiting taxi. Apart from this, the movie portrays Lennon, the Beatles, and their friends and hangers-on as if they were deep in the existential sloughs of early middle age.
At the end of Lennon Naked, John remains the enigma he was at its beginning. The usual public images offer traces of the mystery of his creativity and the love affair that defined his last decade or so, even if a snappy script provides some wry laughs along the way. Of a long awaited meeting with Bridget Bardot, John quips, “I was on acid, she was on the wane.” And when the group sets off on its ill-fated Magical Mystery Tour, and a reporter asks where they are going, John says they’re going anywhere, as long as it’s “on the A303” (the popular 1960s tourist route to the southwest of England that passes Stonehenge and Glastonbury). But this is John Lennon for the cameras, the public prankster. The man and artist await another film.