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John Lennon’s Legacy in Film


John Lennon was an iconoclastic symbol of the counterculture, a public figure that rejected conventional social mores, which were complemented by his musical gifts. Whether as an actor or as a pop star Beatle, Lennon was often portrayed as “witty and satirical,” descriptions that he ultimately hated and sought to grow as an artist and human being. This essay traces his filmic life as a way to survey whether his “roles” (fictional or biographical) helped to manifest his outlook on the world.

The Beatles were the most popular band in history. Universally hailed as masters of their trade, “they were the greatest and most influential act of the rock era, and introduced more innovations into popular music than any other rock band of the 20th century. Moreover, they were among the few artists of any discipline that were simultaneously the best at what they did, and the most popular at what they did.”[1] They released about twenty albums between 1963 and 1970, and were unique in that, each member of the band was recognized for their distinct personalities.[2]

John Lennon had not only a profound influence on music, yet also had an affiliation with film that helps to elicit his perspective of the world. With the Beatles, he made three films including HELP!, Hard Day’s Night and the documentary Let it Be, which traced the dissolution of the band. Let it Be also demonstrated that they could still make great music, winning a Grammy and Oscar in 1970.[3] The earlier films depicted the band as mocking yet embracing their fame. While these earlier films are not considered classics, they present the Beatles as spontaneous, carefree, with an underlying intelligence. They defined a sense of optimism for rock music.

A Hard Day’s Night was the group’s first film, and proved to be, “despite a tiny budget, one of the best rock musicals ever made.”[4] Roger Ebert commented, “after more than three decades, it has not aged and is not dated; it stands outside its time, its genre and even rock. It is one of the great life-affirming landmarks of the movies.”[5] When the film was released in 1964, the Beatles just arrived to the states and Beatlemania permeated throughout the country. “The kind of thing where we would just pop up a couple of times between the action, “ Lennon said. “All smiles and clean shirt collars to sing our latest record and once again at the end when the local mayor had been convinced that we’re not all ass murderers, or, worse still, about to start shagging some young Sunday school teacher in the town hall flower beds.”[6] It is difficult to tell whether Lennon was being ironic or genuine with this quotation.

The Beatles second film was Help!, which was less respected than A Hard Day’s Night, not only by critics, but also by Lennon himself, who called it mere, “bull shit.” He was asked if the public could look forward to more Beatles films. “There will be more, but I don’t know whether you could look forward to them or not.” He also said that “Help!  was a drag because we didn’t know what was happening. In fact, Richard Lester was a bit ahead of his time with the Batman thing but we were on pot by then and all the best stuff is on the cutting-room floor, with us breaking up and falling all over the place.“ John also said that “ because the film was crammed with so many British character actors, the Beatles felt like extras in their own film” and Lester agreed.[7]

The Beatles' films seemingly showcased their music talents complemented by their youthful personalities. They were perceived a liberating, yet friendly rock stars, as opposed to Bob Dylan’s abrasive personality in Don’t Look Back. The Beatles were very marketable, and while John, Paul, George and Ringo were certainly, “in” on the joke, they nonetheless, cashed in. The exploitation of their musical talents within the films is complemented by the films’ silly plots. This angered John intensely, and often felt embittered to the group, particularly McCartney, as early as 1967.

By late 1969, the Beatles disbanded, citing “personal, business and musical differences,”[8] and thereafter led solo careers. Paul McCartney delved into more pop-oriented sounds. McCartney produced albums McCartney and Ram, in 1970 and 1971, George Harrison released All Things Must Pass in 1970 and Ringo Starr released Sentimental Journey and Beaucoup of Blues, both in 1970. Lennon became more introspective in his post-Beatles career, citing that he had grown stifled by remaining in the band, particularly with his acrimonious relationship to Paul McCartney. His first single album effort John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band was widely praised.

Lennon sought a different outlet with Imagine. As his wife Yoko Ono said, the title song “became the crystallization of John's dream.”[9] Clearly, Lennon’s optimism of a better life whether on this earth or a deep belief in afterlife becomes epitomized by his song. Imagine was John Lennon’s anthem, “lyrics that disparage religion, capitalism, and patriotism, and embrace an atheistic, socialist utopia.”[10]

The film Gimme Some Truth presents rare studio sessions of Imagine. The film “mixes fairly raw session shots with short interview snippets and proto-music video montages.”[11]  It presents Lennon as loose but also an ardent perfectionist. The film even includes sessions with George Harrison, who plays guitar on Lennon’s blistering song against McCartney, “How Do You Sleep?”

You live with straights who tell you--- you was king,
Jump when your mamma tell you any thing,
The only thing you did was yesterday,
And since your gone you're just another day,

How do you sleep?[12]

One scene in Gimme Some Truth (which is also included in Imagine: The Definitive Film Portrait) particularly seems rather frightening in retrospect, in which a strange fan wanders on Lennon’s enormous estate of Ascot, England. The delusional fan believes that the Beatles’ tracks were written for him. Rather than call for security, Lennon tries to rationalize and listen to his perspective.“

John always felt responsible for those people because they were the result of his songs,” Ono narrates in the documentary. “I’m just a guy who writes songs,” Lennon modestly tells him. Trying to console the intruder, Lennon offers him a meal, and this scene helps to encapsulate Lennon’s generous commitment to humanity. The scene sadly seems prophetic to Lennon’s ultimate assassination  by a crazed assassin, Mark David Chapman, outside his apartment in New York, nine years later. “If you treat every confused drifter with that much humanity, you risk tragedy, as Lennon finally discovered. But his openness to the lonely and confused young man reveals, I think, the spirit of his greatest songs.”[13]

Lennon sought for the truth and a better world. He knew that highbrow intellectualism was mere bullshit, often citing that this form of “ivory tower” intellect shrouds the importance and urgency of social action. There is a scene in Andrew Solt’s film Imagine: The Definitive Film, in which Lennon storms into a New York Times office, berating a reporter, who initially had put him down for leading a bed-in to protest the war. She faults him for being naïve, saying his actions are futile. The reporter laments that Lennon has changed as an artist, and essentially has become a self-indulgent charlatan. Lennon retorts with, “you’re just a snob about it! We did an advertising campaign for peace! What do you expect? There are these intellectual manifestos written by a lot of half-witted intellectuals and nobody read them- that’s the problem with the peace movement.” Interestingly, Lennon reflects on his film days as a Beatle:

 “Well I’m sorry you liked our mop heads and I was very witty and satirical and you liked A Hard Day’s Night, but I’ve grown up and you have not!”

 “Have you?” the New York Times reporter asks.

Lennon glances to the camera, “”yes folks!” and with that, so represented a new John Lennon, one who “in 1970, dismissed the preceding years of social upheaval and counterculture revolt as little more than a clothes show; <<everyone dressed up but nothing changed,>> he said.”[14] The exchange with the New York Times reporter underscores Lennon’s attempt to establish him as more than just a pop icon, and rather a socially conscious public figure. Andrew Solt’s documentary traces Lennon from a pop star to a ‘working class hero.’

While Lennon’s social, commitment mainly took place during his solo career, his high ideals for a better world was innate in nature. By  1967, at the height of Beatlemania,  the ‘credibility gap’ in the United States was at an all-time high, particularly from ill feelings toward her involvement in the Vietnam War. The war provoked massive demonstrations throughout the country. Demonstrators, including Lennon, believed that the government was distrustful and in turn, the war, “immoral.” Lennon played a prominent role with the anti-war movement, befriending counterculture figures like Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Norman Mailer.[15]

Hoffman was the political activist Yippie, who along with Jerry Rubin were members of the Chicago Seven, was accused of conspiracy for disrupting Chicago Democratic Convention in August, 1968.  He commented that, “the effect of something like Sgt. Pepper album on me and other activists, organizers and counterculture people around the world was one of incredible impact, like starting a fire in a fireworks factory.”[16] The two soon became friends, even as the FBI consistently bugged Hoffman, and later also Lennon’s home in New York.

Released in late 1967, Lennon starred in Richard Lester’s “How I Won the War” an absurd black comedy, much like Catch 22. The film took place between September 4 and November 7 1966, and was an “antiwar movie set in the Western Desert, Dunkirk, Dieppe, El Alamein and Arnhem, with newsreel shots linking part of the film.”[17] John said that he “did the film because [he] believed in it. There never had been a war film, which showed war as it really is. A man fighting in battle doesn’t see the whole thing. He never meets the enemy until the day a man comes round the corner and sticks a bayonet in him and he can’t quite believe it is happening.”[18]

When the film was premiered at the London Pavilion on October 18, 1967, the press dubbed it ‘the film starring a Beatle,’ and ‘John Lennon’s film,” even though he had a supporting role. The film created a stir, in so far as some at the premiere “believed [it] was an insult to the British dead of World War II and a hundred of them mingled with 1,200 members of the audience and began to throw stink bombs and cause chaos. Eventually fifty policemen had to be called in to control the situation,”[19] with John Lennon at the head of attention.[20]

Interestingly, Richard Lester (who already directed The Beatles’ Help! and A Hard Day’s Night), understood Lennon as an individual, rather as just a rock star. Lester said he regretted the ‘imbalance’ that many fans felt and were disappointed that the film was not exclusively about Lennon. “The part [of Private Gripweed] just seemed to fit John, though I didn’t want to make a film with a Beatle in it.”[21] Lennon’s belief was that the Vietnam War (or wars, in general) was a fraught and unjust endeavor, and the film merely lampoons, and criticizes, its brutality. There’s a strange line by Lennon’s character, Private Gripweed, in which he comments to another soldier about his general. “I liked it more when he was a comedian,” Gripweed says. Clearly, this line reflects Lennon’s ideas that government is merely headed by phony, hypocritical, and even laughable leaders. This idea is epitomized by his song, ‘Crippled Inside:’

You can shine your shoes and wear a suit,
You can comb your hair and look quite cute,
You can hide your face behind a smile,
One thing you can't hide is when you’re crippled inside

Lennon’s simple message, throughout his life, as a member of the Beatles and his solo pursuits, that ‘all you need is love’ and ‘the world will live as one’ can still be viewed as revolutionary. “Now radically disunited, we live dominated by and addicted to gadgets, our raison d'etre and sense of community unfixable broken… The Beatles can still be heard singing their buoyant, poignant, hopeful, love-advocating songs.”[23] His films, much like his songs, manifest his vision to a better world. As wide-ranging as pop-musicals to nostalgic documentaries, John Lennon remains an important cultural icon of the modern age. These films merely serve as testimony and documents to his “life-affirming” ideals.

[2] Comment mentioned by Phil Solomon, in class, University of Colorado: May 2003.

[4] The John Lennon Encyclopedia, 246.

[6] The John Lennon Encyclopedia, 247.

[7] All info retrieved from “FILMOGRAPHY:” The John Lennon Encyclopedia.

[8] The John Lennon Encyclopedia, 580

[9] used in Imagine: The Definitive Film Portrait (Solt)

[14] Macdonald, Ian. “Fabled Foursome, Disappearing Decade,” Revolution in the Head, 2.

[15]  Norman Mailer said at his death, “We have lost a genius of the spirit. The killing of John Lennon altered everything. Like fifty million other people, I cared about Lennon.” (from The John Lennon Encyclopedia, 603)

[16] “Abbie Hoffman,” The John Lennon Encyclopedia. Pp. 343-344

[17]How I Won the War,” The John Lennon Encyclopedia, 356

[18] Quote from Lennon, John Lennon Encyclopedia, 357.

[19]How I Won the War.” Lennon Encyclopedia, 357

[20] Info provided from How I Won the War.” Lennon Encyclopedia, 357

[21] Lennon Encyclopedia, 248.



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