Beatles Biopics: 'In His Life: The John Lennon Story' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Beatles Biopics: 'In His Life: The John Lennon Story'

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Beatles Biopics:
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In His Life: The John Lennon Story is a biopic of the formative years of John Lennon's life. Made in 2000, this television film is predominantly set between 1957 and 1964, with a short flashback section to 1946 and a largely pointless blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene set in 1999.

Cast


CharacterActor
John LennonPhilip McQuillan1
Paul McCartneyDaniel McGowen
George HarrisonMark Rice-Oxley
Brian EpsteinJamie Glover
Mimi SmithBlair Brown
Julia LennonChristine Kavanagh
Cynthia LennonGillian Kearney
Freddie LennonPaul Usher
Stuart SutcliffeLee Williams
Astrid KirchherrPálína Jónsdóttir
Ringo StarrChristian Ealey
Pete BestScot Williams
Peter EckhornCharles De'Ath
Bruno KoschmiderAlex Cox
Ivan VaughanBarry Sloane
Pete ShottonNeil Brannan
Rory StormDean Anthony
Decca ExecutiveJohn Draycott

Plot

The film begins in 1957, when John started his skiffle band, the Quarrymen, named after Quarry Bank School, which he and the members attend. His mother Julia, who knows how to play a banjo, teaches him music. His Aunt Mimi, with whom he lives, is unimpressed with rock and roll, saying, 'Listen to Mozart, John, that's real music.' At school John spends his time drawing cartoons rather than studying, and is suspended for his disruptive behaviour. Despite this, he is accepted at the Liverpool College of Art.

On 6 July, 1957, fate plays a hand when the Quarrymen plays at the Woolton Parish Church Fête, attracting the attention and admiration of a young Paul McCartney. By playing 'Twenty Flight Rock' and tuning John's guitar, Paul impresses John enough to be invited to join the group.

At the Liverpool College of Art, shown with the obligatory nude model art class scene2, John befriends Stuart 'Stu' Sutcliffe. When Stu sells one of his paintings3 he becomes the band's bass player. Meanwhile Paul introduces John to George Harrison, much to his aunt's disgust as she feels George is too working class and common to be a positive influence on the middle class John, informing him, 'There's a creature here to see you.' When George plays 'Raunchy' on the upstairs of a Penny Lane bus, John lets him into the band.

On 15 July, 1958, Julia dies in a road accident after visiting her sister Mimi. Distraught, John unleashes his anger but turns to his music for comfort. Later that year John encounters Cynthia Powell in the pub, tells her she could look like Brigitte Bardot if she dyed her hair blonde and asks her to dance, even though Cynthia tells John she's engaged.

Shortly after, the Beatles begin to become a more talented group, and Stu is seriously assaulted outside a club in 1959. When the band are booked to perform in Hamburg, John writes a letter home to Cynthia. Last seen, she was a redhead who appeared in a brief scene reluctant to dance with John as she was engaged to someone else. The audience should probably have been told that she is now in a passionate relationship with John, and has changed her hair colour and look to appear more like Brigitte Bardot in order to please him. Still, the letter is a nice bit of exposition explaining to the audience who Pete Best and Richard 'Ringo Starr' Starkey are, as well as introducing Stu's girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. Astrid is then seen taking photographs of the band and introduces them to what would become their trademark hairstyle. A blink later the band are being deported from Hamburg when Bruno Koschmider, owner of the first Hamburg club that they played, seeks revenge for their deserting him in order to play in a better, rival club.

Back in Liverpool in November 1961 at NEMS, the North End Music Store run by Brian Epstein, someone looks for a copy of 'My Bonnie', a single released in Germany by Tony Sheridan that the Beatles had been the backing group on. Intrigued, Epstein visits the Cavern Club where the band are performing. He is entranced, and soon offers to become the Beatles' manager, promising to secure them a record contract. On New Year's Day 1962 they audition for music company Decca, who decide not to sign them, feeling guitar music is on the way out.

The Beatles return to play in Hamburg for one last tour, only to discover that Stu had died the day before. A blink later, at EMI's Abbey Road studio they audition for George Martin, who offers them a recording contract provided Pete Best is not the drummer for recording sessions. He is replaced with Ringo without any fuss. As Cynthia reveals she is pregnant, John agrees to marry her, although his aunt Mimi refuses to attend the ceremony. Brian insists they keep the marriage secret as he believes that unless the Beatles appear single and available, their female fans may stop buying their records. (Oh, they're releasing records now, by the way.) Cynthia gives birth while John is off busy being a Beatle, though he drops by long enough to name his son 'Julian' after his mother Julia, and ask the infant, 'Are you gonna be a famous rocker like your dad?'4.

Soon after, a montage of news reports shows the Beatles' rise to stardom, with many famous Beatles moments recreated. The film ends on 15 January, 1964; John Lennon's 'secret' marriage is announced in the newspapers on the day that Brian is contacted by Ed Sullivan. He requests that the Beatles appear on his show in America, where 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' is their first US Number One.

Review

Biopics are usually a bit like dot-to-dots, where you see occasional key points in the life of someone famous; by joining these dots up, you get the overall picture. The first few minutes of In His Life: The John Lennon Story is more like a game of Snakes and Ladders. In the first two minutes the film begins in 1962 where we see the Beatles performing in the Cavern Club, shoots up a ladder to 1999 for a pointless scene in which John Lennon's first guitar is auctioned for US$225,000 before zooming down a snake back to early 1957, where a 17-year-old John is at Quarry Bank School, forming a skiffle group with his schoolmates and dreaming of buying that very guitar. After that, the film settles down into chronological order, with the exception of snaking back to 1946 for a single flashback scene. There are still moments when the film jumps up a ladder into a scene set several months after the one before, leaving viewers unfamiliar with the early days of the Beatles bewildered.

Someone watching a film entitled In His Life: The John Lennon Story might be forgiven for assuming that the film would be the story of John Lennon's life. Instead, the film shows John being the driving force behind the Beatles, and charts their path until they achieve chart success. In other words, it shows highlights of seven years rather than the full 40 years of his life. Many key points, such as his childhood, solo career and life with Yoko Ono are therefore completely left out. Even showing seven years in 80 minutes means that the film is rushed, although the fast pace reflects the rock 'n' roll music it celebrates.

This film is the first biopic of the early days of the Beatles to have been made following their superb Anthology project. This was a television series, book and set of albums that attempted to chronicle the story of the band from its inception through to splitting up.

Veracity

As it is a biopic, a biographical picture telling the story of a well-known celebrity's life, the film is expected to reach a fairly high standard of accuracy. The film begins with a statement reassuring viewers that their expectations are going to be met:

A Drama Based on Actual Events

The film ends with a further statement reinforcing this belief that the audience know how accurate the film has been.

John Lennon
1940-1980
Certain events and dialogue in this drama based on fact are interpretative, certain characters are composites or have been fictionalised, and some names and locations have been changed.

In other words, the film is stating that absolute truth has had to undergo understandable, minor concessions to the fact they are making an 80-minute drama. For instance, in the film, John meets Cynthia Powell and George Harrison and then Paul McCartney meets Stuart Sutcliffe all within the space of two minutes, on the same day. Though this is not exactly how they all met in real life, it is an interpretative dramatisation of real events as all those people did meet. In the film, George arrives in Hamburg in 1962 at the same time as Paul and John when in reality he travelled the following day with Brian as he had been ill. These sort of minor deviations from actual events do no harm; a lengthy scene showing George suffering from measles and debating which day to travel on would not be entertaining. As long as the spirit of events is maintained and the details match expectations, most minor deviations from the truth are of no consequence whatsoever.

When the look of the era is flawlessly recreated and the Beatles are seen singing the right songs in the recreated Cavern that matches surviving newsreel footage, the aura of overall authenticity is quite high. This, despite interpretative dialogue and some understandable changes to names and locations, is reinforced in a montage partway through the film that uses genuine newsreel film footage. Famous poses and familiar scenes are recreated to help convince viewers that they are seeing the true story of the Beatles in general and John Lennon in particular.

Unlike other Beatles biopics, In His Life: The John Lennon Story includes scenes filmed in Mendips, the house in Menlove Avenue where John Lennon grew up. Other genuine locations include the gates to Strawberry Field, a glimpse at Penny Lane, the resurrected Cavern Club, Quarry Bank High School, Liverpool Art College and St Peter's Church Hall, the actual room where John met Paul. In London we also see the Abbey Road zebra crossing, re-enacting the Abbey Road album cover. This is an achievement of which the film can feel justly proud, as all other biopics have not featured genuine locations so prominently5.

Major Mistakes

Unfortunately there are some flaws in the film that sadly jolt the viewer out of the time period. The first of these is the auction scene. Since 1979, there have been many, many John Lennon biopics. This is not the first to show how the Beatles got together. It is not the only one to show John meeting Paul, or the Beatles in Hamburg, or John's friend Stu, or John's relationship with his father. It is, however, the only one to include an auction scene in which we see one of John's possessions being sold. In 1999. For a film entitled In His Life: The John Lennon Story, it seems unbelievable that there would be included a scene set 19 years after John Lennon's life had ended.

Another mistake takes place when Brian Epstein convinces the Beatles to stop dressing in leather jackets and start wearing suits on stage in a scene immediately after one showing the band performing while wearing those suits.

My God, how can any of us forget Blackpool?

The most serious major mistake is the Blackpool6 scene. It begins with Julia reciting John's life story in what is pure exposition while they both walk along the Mersey. Then the audience's attention is yanked with a 'pay close attention now' zoom shot right up the actress playing Julia Lennon's nostrils as she hams dramatically, 'My God! How can any of us forget Blackpool?' as cheesily as is humanly possible.

We then get a fade back 11 years to an unconvincing scene when John and his father spent the summer of 1946 in Blackpool. This Blackpool, though, has had its famous tower drift out to sea somewhat and turn into a small, white lighthouse, even though Blackpool doesn't have one. Similarly all Blackpool's piers have vanished, as have the illuminations, and indeed, has Blackpool - there isn't even a stick of rock or picture postcard in sight, though fortunately a donkey has survived. The scene shows John being asked to decide whether he wants to spend his life in New Zealand with his father, or in Liverpool with his mother. At the end of this scene, John asks his mother whether he will ever see his father again, to which she replies that he won't – with no mention in the rest of the film of the fact that he did.

Just Gimme Some Truth

There is no denying that strong attempts were made to make the actors look as similar to the real people as possible, so John dresses in the style of the real John Lennon. When growing up in Liverpool he strolls through the grounds of the Strawberry Field orphanage, which later inspired the name of a song, and sees Eleanor Rigby's grave, although that is a McCartney song.

When the band, then called Johnny and Moondogs, change their name to the Beatles, this name was suggested by Stu and inspired by the Crickets. The film implies that the Beatles were inspired by the name of the rival motorocycle gang from the 1953 film The Wild One, which was the Beetles. However, this film was banned in Britain until 1967 so it is extremely unlikely that it would have influenced Stu7.

In the film, this name change takes place after Johnny and the Moondogs audition and are hired to tour Scotland - on two conditions. First, that they come up with a better name and that Stu's wages come out of the group's pay, as the music promoter will not pay him as he isn't able to play his bass guitar. In fact, this audition took place on 10 May, 1960, when the group was called the Silver Beatles and auditioned for music promoter Larry Parnes. He had several acts including Billy Fury. Parnes himself has stated he was impressed with Stu's performance, but had reservations about their drummer, Tommy Moore, who had arrived late. Parnes wrote on the day, 'Silver Beatles – very good. Keep note for future work', and signed them up for a week touring Scotland, backing Johnny Gentle.

Although the Beatles spent much of 1960-62 in Hamburg, this barely registers on screen. For instance, although in truth the Beatles played four different clubs in Hamburg, the Indra, Kaiserkeller, Top Ten and Star Club, only two are seen. One, the Indra Club, is portrayed as a strip club in which the band are the backing group to a drag striptease act, when in truth it was a former strip club that was being turned into a rock 'n' roll venue, until the neighbours complained about the noise.

The film also implies that Stu's headaches began as a result of an attack outside a club in Liverpool in 1959, and that he refused to see a doctor about them. Although Stu was involved in a violent incident in 1961 in Liverpool, his early death is usually now associated with drug addiction and withdrawal. Similarly, in truth he saw many doctors and had hospital appointments in both Britain and West Germany. The film, however, makes no mention of drug-taking at all.

Unlikable Lennon

That said, the film is not afraid to show John in a negative light. John is shown as being an uncaring husband, missing the birth of his son Julian in order to play with the band, and then immediately going off for a two-week holiday in Spain with Brian Epstein.

Immediately after, the film shows the events of Paul's 21st birthday. John, heavily drunk, is seen to aggressively attack Cavern disc jockey Bob Wooler, who had joked that John had had an affair with Brian whilst in Spain. Savagely punched and kicked, with a black eye, bruised ribs and knuckles torn after trying to defend his face from John's foot, Wooler was driven to hospital by Brian and John was initially unrepentant, describing the incident with the words:

He called me a queer so I battered his ...ribs in.

Although this is not shown in the film, John then tried to 'prove' he was not gay by aggressively groping a female bystander, before being taken home. It took John two days to calm down and agree to send a cable apology to Bob, giving him £200, with no restitution given to the woman he assaulted. To date, no other Beatles biopic has included this event, one that shows John's worst possible behaviour.

Soundtrack

Like other Beatles biopics, the film shows John Lennon and his group, originally the Quarrymen, later Johnny and the Moondogs and eventually the Beatles, performing a variety of songs. Although these performances are not by the real Beatles but by a tribute act, the performances show how John's band developed from being in a skiffle group playing tea chests and dustbin lids to the band that took the world by storm.

Songs in Bold were released by the Beatles, with the album mentioned after the song. Songs in Italics were released by one of the Beatles after the group had split up.

The songs shown being performed by the Beatles, either as a group or individually are:

  • 'Roll Over Beethoven' - With The Beatles
  • 'Midnight Special' – Paul McCartney: CHOBA B CCCP
  • 'Maggie Mae' - Let It Be
  • 'Love Me Tender'
  • 'Yakkety-Yak'
  • 'Railroad Bill'
  • 'Be-Bop-A-Lula' – Paul McCartney: Unplugged (The Official Bootleg)
  • 'Twenty Flight Rock' – Paul McCartney: CHOBA B CCCP
  • 'Raunchy'
  • 'Kansas City' – Paul McCartney: CHOBA B CCCP
  • 'The Saints' - The Beatles Featuring Tony Sheridan
  • 'My Bonnie' - The Beatles Featuring Tony Sheridan
  • 'Love Is Strange' – Wings (Paul McCartney): Wild Life
  • 'Stand By Me' – John Lennon: Rock 'N' Roll
  • 'Mr Moonlight' - Beatles For Sale
  • 'Roll Over Beethoven' - With The Beatles
  • 'Twist And Shout' - Please Please Me
  • 'She Loves You' - 1

Unusually, one song, 'She Loves You', was a Lennon-McCartney original, rather than a song that the Beatles covered. This is played to celebrate them having a number one success with a completely different song.

Beatles Biopics
1Anthony Borrows plays John age six.2Similar scenes are seen in Birth of the Beatles and Backbeat.3To Littlewoods founder Sir John Moores.4Julian Lennon has had reasonable chart success, with two songs in both the UK and US top ten; 'Valotte' (US #5, 1984), 'Too Late For Goodbyes' (UK #6, US #5, 1984) and 'Saltwater' (UK #6, 1991).5Typically, many biopics simply include the almost obligatory shot of Liverpool's Liver Building, which also features in the Beatles film Yellow Submarine.6Blackpool, a key event in John's life, also appears in biopics Nowhere Boy and Lennon Naked.7Both Stu and Marlon Brando, wearing his costume from The Wild One, appear on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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