Masterpiece Contemporary Lennon Naked airs on Sunday, November 22, at 8 pm
“What do I want?” That’s the primal question at the heart of Lennon Naked, Masterpiece Contemporary’s biopic of John Lennon in the 60s. Forced at six years old to make a choice no child should ever be asked to make, Lennon spends the years depicted in the film (roughly 1964-1971) searching for the answer, aware that the consequences of any choice he makes will haunt him, no matter what the outcome.
As a result, Lennon spends most of the film on a quest to leave the past behind – not just breaking with it, but scorching the earth and burning any bridge that leads to it. Whether it’s for his own sanity or because he’s a selfish git, Lennon either abandons the people in his pre-Yoko Ono life – his first wife Cynthia, his son Julian, the Beatles – or forces them to abandon him, as with his childhood friend/right-hand-man Pete. It’s a cycle, of course – his father leaving the family when Lennon was six (a pattern repeated by the son) and the unexpected death of Beatles manager Brian Epstein, the father figure Lennon didn’t have as a child, left deep wounds which clearly never fully healed. Only his time with Yoko Ono (who, except for one offhand comment from Paul McCartney, is never portrayed as “the woman who broke up the Beatles”) seems to bring him any peace or happiness, though his own inner anguish still vibrates just below the surface of his man-in-love smile.
Occasionally you wonder at this film’s daring – can you really base the emotional twists and turns of this complex man on one (admittedly tragic) moment from his past? Even when remnants of that moment come back into his life, in the form of the previously shadowy figure of his father? But whether you buy that in the case of the real Lennon or not, Christopher Eccleston sells it here with a powerful, nuanced performance you won’t be able to take your eyes off of. Even in Lennon’s coldest, cruelest moments (and there are plenty of those), you get the sense he’s focusing his inner anguish into a sharp blade of anger and contempt at a world he doesn’t want to deal with until he knows himself what he truly wants. And when Lennon finally gives his pain voice, whether it’s in conversation with Yoko, in commiseration with his psychiatrist or in confrontation with his father, Eccleston portrays the tortured Beatle with just enough passion to squeeze your heart, but not enough to go over the top.
“It’s not peace I want – it’s pandemonium,” Lennon seethes following the press conference for the infamous Bed-In for Peace. Only that choice works out, given Lennon’s fragile emotional state, and finally Lennon and Yoko wipe the slate clean by leaving the country of his birth for a new life in New York. Has Lennon finally discovered what he wants, or is he simply running away, pretending his former life didn’t exist, as he believes his father did? When he’s asked at his final British press conference, in which he announces the move, “What about your son?” the film leaves the question hanging. The viewer will feel the same way at the end, but it’s an appropriate conclusion. Resolution never comes easy, not in real life, nor in Lennon Naked.
– Michael Toland
About the reviewer: Michael Toland is the archivist and assistant producer for Austin City Limits. He also writes about music for Blurt, The Big Takeover, Sleazegrinder, Trouser Press and The Austinist.