'Lennon Naked' - Alex's Review

Here's a review of the preview (as seen at BAFTA May 4th), now rewritten after several rewatches.

Between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, I prefer David Bowie. That should say enough about my background. Before the casting announcement I knew only the basic pub-quiz facts about John Lennon, and he was just some quasi-mythical figure for me. So the news that broke November last was truly bizarre. I was borderline suspicious and kept my expectations well under the floorboards.

While the film didn't bring total relief to me, it definitely wasn't a complete disaster either. It attempts to splice lyrical and gritty levels in order to produce a narrative that's both psychological and epic. The everlasting dance – on the page, on the screen – between sentimental and relentless, naive and edgy. Seen as a whole, the writing is quite clever, but the total trust the film seems to have in it and the lead actor might also be a disadvantage – as unfortunately it means that all the decisions hang on them, instead of supporting them.

I won't discuss how historically correct the whole thing is, yet I would like to say that this film is not really a biography. For example, you can make a film about "a character who is greedy", and you can make a film about "greed". 'Lennon Naked' is not as much the former as the latter, a film about "John Lennon". All questions about physical likeness, age, voice are thus irrelevant. It's a picture of the strata, taken from a particular test, and it's up to every viewer how it connects with the context.

While I'm ready to accept it as an artist's interpretation, I'm less sure about the superimposed structure – the dates, the mix of archive materials and new, refilmed in b/w, transitioning then into colour. I wasn't convinced the very first time I saw the film, and subsequent watches only strengthened the impression. I think it was a misguided attempt to make the film more vivid, more appealing. There's nothing wrong with the fragmentation (which is probably a good picture of Lennon's mind), but the pseudo chronological approach (especially with the years just scrolled by) cools the viewer off in the beginning; it neither adds anything nor is in any other way justified. A mix of the childhood memories and the scenes from the present, poetic and narrative, would have worked by itself.

Why was the artificial beautification necessary? Not only there was the usual issue of limited budget, but also that of a breakneck filming schedule. I'd say the authors had no time to step back and take a look at what's developing in front of their eyes, and all too often chose to go for the hopefully fail-safe option. No time for experiments, no time to challenge the actors. Chris Eccleston gives it 100% percent, but is let down by other parts of the production that are forcibly fixed at 90 or less. He could have gone so much further.

It's a pity how underutilized the two really interesting character pairs are, Lennon and Brian Epstein (Rory Kinnear, who also had great connection with Eccleston in 'The Second Coming') and Lennon and Yoko Ono (Naoko Mori). Speaking of Lennon and Ono, the combination of Eccleston's version and Mori's version is truly successful. And it is a refreshing choice to show rather realistically the development of their relationship. In the moments they have together, dynamics is just right. It's also clear the film does have self-respect – and confidence: The extensive nude sequences are actually genuine character scenes and not just a gimmick.

There are indeed touches of brilliance in the film, where it bypasses any and all limitations effortlessly. Say, the use of music (original, not DVD version), the cheeky quick montage representing the not shown meeting with Bardot ("I know nothing!"), the look on Lennon's face when he tells Pete he's thinking about Yoko, wordless scene in the hospital – great. And the intense moments, and the humorous. Direct interactions between characters should have been exploited so much more – the actors are strong, all the info is there, no need to spell it out; give me everyday situations instead of permanent state of living in a press conference.

The fatherhood line is the least appealing to me in 'Lennon Naked'. For one, it seems that the writer, having discovered the less known facts, a bit too happily connected the dots. And also, I missed an allusion to the later part of John Lennon's life, where being a father gained new meaning for him and maybe was more important than before; the theme seems to be forcefully drawn onto a film with given chronological limits – earliest synopses created an impression of a more natural story layout.

This said, I do accept the film's version of what it could have been like to be John Lennon. I like what Chris Eccleston does, and I like the water very much. Remember King Herod's "Prove to me that you're no fool, / Walk across my swimming pool" from 'Jesus Christ Superstar'? I've been thinking about it since the trail, and it appears I was on the right path.

So, 'Lennon Naked' is enjoyable – and perhaps even more so if you, say, transfer certain sequences from narrative to poetic level for interpretation. It's a one-off role for Eccleston, and in that aspect 'Lennon Naked' is interesting. I always welcome going against the current, for better or worse, to destruct or to create, – because, among other things, it unties your hands. And this film is certainly not a conveyor production.

2010-05-21 [last updated 2014]

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