Being a Beatle bugged John Lennon almost as much as being the son of a wayward drunk.
He also had issues with his mother, his first wife Cynthia and the bearded, babbling Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, according to “Lennon Naked,” a gripping BBC drama airing Nov. 21 on PBS at 9 p.m. New York time,
The only person that seems to have made him happy was Yoko Ono, which made him none too popular with almost everyone else in his life, including his bandmates and Cynthia’s snarling mom.
Few days in Lennon’s life were blissful, if this 90-minute drama is to be believed.
Christopher Eccleston stars as the rock icon. He’s not a dead ringer --- his beak is too big -- but he’s close enough with his Jesus hair and wire-rimmed glasses.
The film, written by Robert Jones and directed by Edmund Coulthard, opens in 1964 with Lennon and manager Brian Epstein (Rory Kinnear) driving to a hotel for a meeting with Lennon’s father, Freddie (Christopher Fairbank).
Freddie vamoosed when Lennon was 6 years old and hadn’t spoken to his son in 17 years. The father is a booze hound with a fondness for scotch and, it turns out, a 19-year-old girl. This impresses John, who sets the old man and his babe up in a house. Yet his bitterness toward his father rages throughout the film, which purports to be “based on real events.”
Eccleston’s portrayal of Lennon as a tormented product of a dissolved home is powerful. Though he would become one of the world’s most recognizable peace activists, he was rarely at peace with himself.
In a pivotal scene he tells his primal-scream therapist of being forced to choose between his mother and his father during a tense seaside meeting. He initially chose dad, then ran to mom, who subsequently farmed him out to an aunt. The sense of abandonment haunted him ever after.
Yoko Ono (Naoko Mori) did bring some relief. For Lennon it was close to love at first sight. He sees her sitting in an art studio, decked out in her underwear. He sends for her and the rest is history.
They get naked a few times in the film though not in a way to get anyone’s sap rising. In one bare-butted scene Yoko sports enough ballast to keep a schooner aloft in a stiff wind.
She’s also given to arcane musings like, “I’m just thinking about acorns.” Still, she comes across as a sympathetic character, especially after losing a child and getting a perpetually cold shoulder from the other Beatles, played by actors who bear little resemblance to the real Paul, George and Ringo.
Anyone looking for a Beatle recharge will find the film a bummer. Indeed, Lennon calls much of the Beatle’s music “bollocks” and sneeringly refers to the band as “the nation’s little pets.”
There are funny scenes, including Lennon’s meeting with Cynthia’s mother during his divorce from her daughter. She calls him “a lying little drug addict” and “a sex maniac, just like his mother.”
Yet the real parallel is with his father, who had left him just as Lennon eventually left son Julian and moved to New York, where he was murdered in 1980.
This symbol of personal and artistic freedom comes across here as a man deeply and sadly ensnared by his past.
What the Stars Mean:
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(Dave Shiflett is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions are his own.)