John Lennon: Here, there and everywhere

There's nothing wrong with rock biopics – but how many more John Lennon dramas do we need? By Gerard Gilbert
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The Independent Culture

Is everybody looking forward to the new John Lennon biopic on BBC4 next week? It's called Lennon Naked and stars a slightly too old Christopher Eccleston as the acerbic mop-top, in a drama charting the demise of Lennon's marriage to Cynthia, his bonding with Yoko Ono, and his tricky relationships with son Julian and absentee father Alfred – a merchant seaman played by Christopher Fairbank of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet immortality. But then maybe you still haven't got round to watching Sam Taylor-Wood's 2009 Lennon biopic, Nowhere Boy, which harked back to John's boyhood and the influence of his mother substitute, Aunt Mimi (a slightly too posh Kristin Scott Thomas).

Or perhaps you're thinking that Lennon has enjoyed more than his fair share of biopics – a canon that also includes Backbeat, a film admittedly about the so-called "fifth Beatle", Stuart Sutcliffe, but dominated by Ian Hart's uncanny portrayal of a pre-stardom Lennon.

Hart was reprising a role he had played three years earlier in The Hours and Times, Christopher Munch's drama about a holiday to Spain that Lennon took with his manager, the gay and besotted Brian Epstein, in the summer of 1963. Did he give way to Epstein's advances?

Just about every stage of Lennon's life and career has now been turned into a movie or TV drama – all except the "lost weekend", when Lennon temporarily split from Yoko, decamped to California with their personal assistant, May Pang, and spent 18 months bar-crawling with Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon. A script about this episode is probably already in development.

Indeed, irony of irony, the only "celebrity" recently seeming to challenge Lennon's pre-eminence on the biopic front is Mark Chapman, the Catcher in the Rye-obsessed psychopath who gunned Lennon down in December 1980 (both The Killing of John Lennon and Chapter 27 give Chapman the starring role). Oh, and Jesus Christ. Lennon once provocatively declared that the Beatles were bigger than Christianity, but Jesus is probably edging Lennon in the biopic count.

But then wasn't Lennon a sort of atheist messiah, or John the Baptist? He certainly had the looks – and there was something divine about that white suit. Or can his seemingly endless fascination to film-makers be explained by something more earthbound – the way he gives such good backchat, especially when facing the press, such pithy, ready-made dialogue. Caustic, complex and compelling, Lennon still bewitches in a way that Paul, George and Ringo never will. But aren't other music legends being unfairly ignored?

Bob Dylan is a more poetic singer-songwriter every bit as "important" as Lennon, and a cultural phenomenon whose story is just as entwined with those heady times. Of course Dylan is still alive, a drawback for dramatists with libel laws to consider, while a premature end is a short-cut to movie immortality – see Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious, Ian Curtis and Brian Jones. So what about Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin? Penelope Spheeris's Joplin biopic, The Gospel According to Janis, remains stuck in development hell – but the rock'n'roll hall of fame and infamy is full of terrific stories.

Personally, I think there is a good film to be made about Led Zeppelin, or rather about their ruthless manager Peter Grant, who also looked after the Yardbirds. Which reminds me – what about Clapton? And there is comedy to be had, surely, with the Gallagher brothers, or a tragi-comedy with Keith Moon. As for Lennon, he's becoming almost too closely observed; it's beginning to feel uncomfortably fetishistic. That's not to say that Lennon Naked is a bad drama – it isn't – and Robert Jones's script is particularly good at illustrating the emptiness of the late Beatle's life. But isn't it time, to paraphrase the title of the band's final studio album, to let him be?

'Lennon Naked' screens on Wednesday 23 June at 9.30pm on BBC4