We Can Work It Out
A disclaimer greets the viewer of Two of Us, currently repeating on the VH-1 cable channel about a fictional meeting between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, which says that the film is “not endorsed by any person depicted herein” and that no one associated with Lennon or McCartney participated in making the film. Ex-Beatles have a history of non-cooperation with biographers, yet this factual statement in white letters on a black screen underlines that what follows is fiction, temporarily stifling whatever pleasant expectations viewers may have. However, the next screen asserts that the film is based on “a legend,” which means, I suppose, that the movie’s meeting between Paul and John has at least been postulated before, and perhaps, it could have occurred.
Alarmingly, this event is imagined for the viewer without the music of the Beatles. This becomes apparent as a nondescript theme plays over the opening credits. The lack of Beatles music is a problem the filmmakers could not avoid (as no one would give them usage rights for the songs or the Beatles’ recordings of them), but it’s a glaring deficiency that is only underlined by the music the film does use. The background music is the worst kind of made-for-TV movie music, sappier than anything Paul could dream up, even at his sappiest (at regular intervals, a string section and piano tell viewers to feel sad whenever an actor’s eyes well up with tears). The soundtrack does include a bit of then-current pop music: Peter Frampton’s live version of “Do You Feel Like We Do” plays on Paul’s limo radio (he’s dialed it to avoid another station’s “Beatles’ Weekend”) until the film cuts to John sitting alone in his apartment, also listening to Frampton. He turns it off with a sneer, intimating a difference in their tastes.
This is sad, really, because it reminds us that we’re missing some great music, as does the film’s own title. “Two of Us” is the name of one of the few truly wonderful songs on the Beatles’ Let It Be. Or more precisely, the song itself is less wonderful than the performance a duet by John and Paul. Stirring, it could make you wonder why the two did not demonstrate their love of the Everly Brothers on records more often. Such memories mean that when they do sit down at the piano in this film, it is exciting for a moment, right up until they start singing. We want to hear John and Paul. What we get are Jared Harris (good with a sneer) and Aidan Quinn (looking odd with baby fat on his face, brown contacts, and a wig) moving their mouths while a pair of voices, obviously coming from some other location, sing “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds.”
First time screenwriter Mark Stanfield says, “This scene was just something I wanted to see on film.” While his statement hardly excuses this disappointing bit of business, we might appreciate his intentions here: the film envisions John Lennon as he might have been, alive and together again with his ex-writing partner. And despite being almost painfully silly, the scene at the piano demonstrates two men hovering between a recovered friendship and a remembered friendship. The tension is highlighted by the scenes which bracket this one, in which intimate feelings and insecurities surface. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg (perhaps best known for directing the film Let it Be) gives the actors lengthy takes and two-shots to allow them to play off one another, as they discuss Lennon’s background (before they sing together) and the recent death of each of their fathers (after). Singing “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” brings them together in the midst of other exchanges when the two men are not necessarily listening to or understanding one another.
In spite of such reconciliatory fantasizing, Two of Us is not, to the creators’ credit, the sort of romantic wish-fulfillment that one might expect, remaining generally plausible. The time and place for the event has been carefully chosen: it is April 1976 in New York, some six years after the official breakup of the Beatles. Paul makes a surprise visit to John’s apartment in the Dakota, and they spend the next several hours together, talking, walking, and getting “high with a little help.” They discuss their past misunderstandings and their present and future musical ambitions.
The facts are that the Beatles never recorded again together again after 1970 (anyone who mentions the risible “Free as a Bird” or “Real Love” at this point will not be served ice cream with the rest of the class), and John and Paul never performed together. The film respects these facts, sort of: John and Paul meet, but do not write new songs together, plan to tour together, or promise to name future children after one another. They don’t become intimate friends with each other’s wives. Instead, the film represents the hope of many fans that the two men were not still “in some kind of horrible feud” when Lennon was killed in 1980. Such a hope is understandable: they were longtime friends (since their mid-teens) as well as competitive co-workers. Many Beatles fans wanted them to get along, just as most of us want our friends to be friendly with one another.
The film suggests that John and Paul were at peace with one another as it attempts to engage two very different audiences: the fanatics (those who buy books by Mark Lewisohn, who has catalogued seemingly everything, save what each Beatle ate for breakfast for 10 years) and casual viewers (those who think “Yesterday” is a neat song and wonder why the band broke up). So the dialogue shifts constantly and jarringly between awkward exposition and what amount to in-jokes. One moment John is recounting his life without a father and his mother’s decision to pass him off on his Aunt Mimi, a summary for viewers unaware of these details. Yet later, the film assumes a more informed audience, when John kisses Paul on the mouth and Paul says, “Is my name Brian?”, a reference to Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who was homosexual. No explanation is offered for the identity of “Brian” (or for why this “joke” is here at all.)
All the talk serves other purposes, leading the protagonists to a mutual understanding and presenting Stanfield’s own interpretation of them. A pattern soon emerges: each man says exactly what he is feeling in a line or two, followed by another line from the other, which defines the situation or tidies it up. John proclaims a need to “stir people up,” by way of an explanation for his art and often confrontational demeanor: sometimes, he says, when facing trials, you just have to “bloody scream” (it helps here to know that he did indeed go through scream therapy). Paul, ever the cute one, replies that he does not like to scream. It’s hard to tell here who needs the therapy here.
Perhaps the most embarrassing scene of this mutual healing process comes near film’s end, as John and Paul sit on the roof of the Dakota. As their conversation becomes increasingly personal, we can see the big statements coming, and do they ever. John takes off his glasses and asks Paul what he sees. Looking at John, Paul (Quinn works hard here) says, “I see a little boy,” worried that “no one is going to protect you.” He adds that John “doesn’t realize how beautiful he is.” As expected, John starts to cry at such tenderness.
For the most part, however, John shows no weakness. Rather, he and Paul seem much like we expect: John is angry and rude, but also loving and ambitious to change the world; Paul is affable, forgiving, and mostly content with his life. But not too content: the film attempts to correct a prevalent perception of the post-Beatles Paul as a writer of frivolous, useless music. Whenever John calls his work “Muzak” or makes other derogatory comments, Paul rolls his eyes and suffers in silence. John’s renowned “brutal honesty” here may lead some viewers to support Paul. And then John does concede that the 1974 Wings release, Band on the Run, is a “great album.” (The film offers no such defense of Lennon’s solo output.)
The movie does offer one provocative moment, disrupting its overriding presentation of Paul as the passive peacekeeper and counselor to the sharp-tongued John. When Paul first enters John’s apartment, John tells him to remove his shoes, and after a vague double take, Paul does so. When Paul enters the apartment for the second time, he does not take his shoes off: he starts to walk into the living room but looks down at the carpet and thinks better of it. A close up of Paul’s face shows a mischievous (even malicious) look, followed by a close up of his shoe wilfully rubbing the carpet. It is a strange and riveting moment, but it passes quickly. These few shots express quickly and efficiently a more interesting Paul than the ceaseless dialogue has shown.
Other than this moment, the film is basically a conventional “famous persons’ meeting,” and a filmed memorial for a person who is no longer here. And as there will surely be more plays and films about the Beatles to aid that remembrance, I will offer a friendly suggestion. I think the next film should consist of Paul and Yoko Ono spending an afternoon together. Ono is more misunderstood than Paul has ever been and they certainly have a great deal to talk about. Suggested titles: “I’m Looking Through You,” “Come Together,” or, just for fun, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” I’ll put down my Mark Lewisohn books and watch when VH-1 makes that movie, and I’ll hope for a decent soundtrack.