It’s hard to believe, but the co-writer of the Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-Four” would have turned 74 on Oct. 9, if John Lennon were still alive. During the Fab Four’s heyday, Lennon quickly transcended the role of being a mere pop “mop top” to become a poet, as well as an activist. In 1966 the Englishman ran afoul of Christian fundamentalists by saying “the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.” Lennon married Yoko Ono, a Japanese woman, which stirred racial antipathies. As the war in Vietnam raged, John went on to join the front ranks of that struggle, composing the antiwar movement’s theme song.
Lennon is the exemplar of combining art and activism and using celebrity to advance causes. Realizing that no matter where he went or what he did on his honeymoon that his marriage would be a media circus, he used that attention to benefit the antiwar cause by staging a “Bed-In” for peace that exploited his fame to promote ending the Vietnam War. He and Yoko did mass advertising for peace, taking out strategically located billboards with the message: “War is over! If you want it.” The pacifist couple also mailed acorns to world leaders for them to plant, so that watching life blossom would influence their way of thinking and actions. Of course, the ex-Beatle also donated and raised lots of money for the movement.
After leaving the Beatles in 1970 and relocating to America, John and Yoko championed other causes, which Lennon often musically expressed, especially in 1972’s “Sometime in New York City.” This radical album included: “Angela,” an ode to political prisoner Angela Davis; “Attica State” about the Upstate New York prison uprising; and the pro-woman’s liberation “Woman Is the Nigger of the World.” Among Lennon’s other lefty songs are “Working Class Hero,” “Power to the People,” “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” the idealistic “Imagine” and “Gimme Some Truth,” wherein Lennon lambasted the mendacious Nixon regime.
Here are the Top 10 John Lennon features and documentaries that shed light on the music, life and activism of rock ‘n’ roll’s most sublime fool on the hill.
Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!: “A HARD DAY’S NIGHT”
This freewheeling 1964 paean to Beatle-mania is a classic shot in glorious black and white by director Richard Lester. “A Hard Day’s Night” set the template for the Fab Four as the spirit of youthful insouciance and irreverence. When a stodgy member of the older generation scolds the Beatles on a train saying: “Don’t take that tone with me, young man. I fought the war for your sort,” Ringo perfectly captures the zeitgeist retorting: “I bet you’re sorry you won.” At a fitting John cuts a measuring tape with a scissor, proclaiming: “I now declare this bridge open!” With their irrepressible joie de vivre the Lads from Liverpool display a Marx Brothers-like zany panache. But of course, along with their quips and antics were their exuberant songs, such as the title track, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “She Loves You”, that set the trend for ’60s music. (See: www.imdb.com/title/tt0058182/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_8.)
Goo Goo Goo Joob: “MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR”
John, Paul, George and Ringo embark on a psychedelic surreal sojourn in this colorful 1967 film that stretched the boundaries of filmmaking with avant-garde techniques. Ahead of its time, “Magical Mystery Tour” was one of the Beatles’ rare commercial flops, despite its score of Beatles classic including the title tune, “I Am the Walrus”, “The Fool on the Hill”, etc. The nearly hour-long made-for-TV-movie was conceived and directed by the Beatles, when, as McCartney said, their hallucinogen-influenced “imaginations were… believe me, at this point they’re quite vivid.” The bus trip suggests that cosmic consciousness is “Coming to Take You Away” from everyday reality to a higher, more intense experience, thereby epitomizing counterculture philosophy. (See: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061937/?ref_=tt_rec_tt.)
“It’s my sodding career, liberating -- all right?” “HOW I WON THE WAR”
The same year Lennon co-made “Magical” he reunited with “A Hard Day’s Night” and 1965’s “Help!” helmer Richard Lester to co-star in 1967’s “How I Won the War.” The almost 109 minute-feature was scripted by Charles Wood, who also wrote 1968’s antiwar “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” “How I won the War” is significant in that it reveals Lennon’s growing political awareness and movement towards a pacifist stance. Set during World War II, Lennon and Lester mock militarism and show the futility of combat. Towards the end, when Lennon’s character Gripweed is grievously wounded, he questions war. One of the soldiers muses that after WWII he’ll move on to Vietnam. (See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yxy48n7Y9xA.)
All You Need Is Love: “THE HOURS AND TIMES”
John Lennon is such a seminal figure that he has been depicted in at least three biopics, all of them worthy. The first is writer/director Christopher Munch’s 57-minute, gay-themed 1991 black and white film that fictionalizes an actual 1963 Spanish holiday Lennon (Ian Hart) took with the Fab Four’s manager Brian Epstein (David Angus), to take a break from the nascent Beatle-mania. Epstein is smitten with the recently wed Lennon, who shows himself to be tolerant of Brian’s homosexuality. (See: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvJrbHEp36s.)
Hamburg Days: “BACKBEAT”
Ian Hart reprised his role as Lennon in this biopic that takes place before John’s Barcelona trip with Epstein. 1994’s “Backbeat” finds the pre-Ringo Beatles performing in Hamburg 1960-1962, and the future pacifist Lennon is not so very “peacey lovey” in this early look at the Liverpool Lads. In fact, if not downright unlikable here, John’s a hard edged brawler as he fights to reach “the toppermost of the poppermost!” The biopic suggests that Lennon actually may have killed somebody during a fight. Nevertheless, with its depictions of the so-called “Fifth Beatle” Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), Stu’s German lover Astrid Kerchherr (Sheryl Lee) and drummer Pete Best (Scot Williams) -- all important figures in Fab Four lore -- most Beatle-maniacs will probably dig this pic shot on location in the U.K. and Germany. Especially since “Backbeat” has a great soundtrack, with songs such as “Twist n Shout”; it won a BAFTA Award (the U.K. equivalent of the Oscar) for Film Music and was nominated for Best British Film. (See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9T5h_Cr0i7o.)
“Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”: “NOWHERE BOY”
This sensitively made 2009 U.K. feature provides background into John’s (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) troubled Liverpool childhood and teen years, offering insight into the source of his music. In “Nowhere Boy” John is abandoned by his father and neglected by his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), for whom Lennon later composed the haunting, lyrical tune of that name on the “White Album.” John is raised by his Aunt Mimi, who is well-played by Kristin Scott Thomas (Lennon generously provided for Mimi once he attained stardom). John’s early band, the Quarrymen, and first meeting with Paul, are covered, as the band that became the Beatles comes into being. When Julia finally reenters his life she’s killed in a car accident by an off-duty policeman -- fuelling Lennon’s hatred of authority figures. The cleverly titled “Nowhere Boy” -- which riffs on the name of the Lennon-McCartney song “Nowhere Man” -- was nominated for the BAFTA for Best British Film and the three leads were all nommed for Best Acting BAFTAs. (See: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1266029/?ref_=nv_sr_1.)
Big Apple Days: “LennoNYC”
Michael (not Brian!) Epstein’s behind the scenes 2012 documentary for the PBS “American Masters” series focused on John’s life with Yoko in New York City and the period when he was a bread-baking house husband raising his second son Sean. (See: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/episodes/lennonyc/about-the-film/1551/.)
Working Class Hero: “THE U.S. VS. JOHN LENNON”
This superb 2006 documentary revealing the Nixon regime’s not-so-secret war against Lennon is must see viewing -- and helps explain why Tricky Dick beat George McGovern in the landslide election of 1972. As the post-Beatles Lennon sought to relocate to New York, he agreed to join forces with other top pop musicians and antiwar activists to embark on a rock tour that would have rocked America. The plan was brilliantly simple: Lennon and company would perform at concerts across the USA to rally youth and register voters to defeat Nixon and Agnew in the presidential election. Fearful that Lennon’s star power would help topple the Nixon Administration, the dogs of war were sicced on John and Yoko, who were subjected to intense harassment by the FBI and INS. An old U.K. drug charge was used against Lennon, forcing him to divert his attention from the campaign trail to an epic court fight for legal immigration status, which derailed the planned antiwar concert tour. Throughout the ordeal Our Man John kept his sense of humor: After eventually winning, when Nixon, John Mitchell, and others implicated in the Watergate scandal fell from grace, Lennon wittily told a reporter this only proved “time wounds all heels.” Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Carl Bernstein, Tariq Ali, Gore Vidal, etc., appear in the doc. From a political point of view this is the best Lennon documentary. (See: www.imdb.com/title/tt0478049/.)
“Nothing’s Gonna Change my World”: “ACROSS THE UNIVERSE”
Julie Taymor’s highly imaginative 2007 musical creatively uses Beatles songs (although not necessarily performed by them) to enhance an antiwar love story (starring Evan Rachel Wood) about resistance to the Vietnam War. In doing so Lennon’s pacifism and his bandmates’ love of “peace and light” is perfectly expressed. (See: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0445922/?ref_=nv_sr_1.)
All We Are Saying is: “GIVE PEACE A CHANCE”
Danny “News Dissector” Schechter’s nonfiction film, made with the cooperation of Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon (who appear in it), was an effort to stop Bush’s invasion of Iraq -- that is, Pres. George H.W. Bush’s war back in 1991, when this documentary was made. It features various musicians including Little Richard and Lenny Kravitz, in cameos singing versions of “Give Peace a Chance”, which John composed in 1969 and became the anthem for the anti-Vietnam War movement. Schechter’s hour-long film is little seen because it came out while the media was beating the drums for the Gulf War and posed a counter-narrative to the jingoistic war hysteria. As a Variety headline put it the doc was “Selling Peace At a Time of War.” Ron Kovic, who was depicted by Tom Cruise in Oliver Stone’s 1989 antiwar movie “Born on the Fourth of July”, appears in the film that used Lennon’s lyrical legacy to once again stand up to what Dylan called “The Masters of War.”
L.A.-based film historian and reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).