The Beatles On Film: ‘Eight Days a Week’ - And 29 Other Movies

Beatlemania swept through the Soviet Union
Beatlemania swept through the Soviet Union | © DLindsley / Wikicommons

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years has drawn from fan and bootleg footage and local newscasts to tell the story of the band’s momentous journey as a live band during the peak years of Beatlemania.
Ron Howard’s documentary, the first authorized since Let It Be (1970), is an intimate portrait of how the Beatles dealt with their bewildering fame. The digital elucidation of the performed songs means they can be heard as no one at the concerts ever could – including the boys themselves – given the cacophonous screaming.

From June 1962 to August 1966, the Beatles played 815 shows in 90 cities in 15 countries. As much joy (and hysteria) as they elicited, the shows left John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr creatively spent as a live act and emotionally frayed. George Harrison was the first to express his disenchantment. The decision to retreat to the studio facilitated, of course, the sonic progression that, already apparent on 1965’s Rubber Soul album, marked their albums from Revolver (1966) through Let It Be (1970), via the watershed of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967).

McCartney and Starr gave Howard fresh on-camera interviews, their visual clarity contrasting with the fuzzier look of the archival clips of Lennon and Harrison talking, the difference registering ‘a poignant undertow of loss,’ as Variety’s Guy Lodge has put it. There are reminiscences, too, from Whoopi Goldberg, who was a nine-year-old among the estimated 55,600 Beatles fans who attended the legendary Shea Stadium concert on August 15, 1965; Sigourney Weaver, whom Howard’s team spotted as a 14-year-old in footage of a 1964 show; and Richard Lester, the director of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965). The song “Help!” was written by Lennon in response to the strains of touring and the depression induced by the group’s goldfish bowl existence.

A long and winding film list

For new and recent discoverers of the Beatles at least, Eight Days a Week is one of the most revealing of the many movies and television dramas that have attempted to capture the essence, say something new, or explore the significance of the pre-eminent musical act of our times.

Three such films emerged in 2013 alone: Good Ol’ Freda, Snodgrass, and Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed. They added to a catalogue that includes the four movies the Beatles appeared in together – A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, Magical Mystery Tour (1967), and Let It Be – and the five partial biopics: The Hours and Times (1991), Backbeat (1994), The Two of Us (2000), Nowhere Boy (2009), and Lennon Naked (2010).

For better or worse, the Beatles are a gift to film that keeps on giving. Howard’s movie joins Albert and David Maysles’ seminal cinema vérité documentary What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. (1964; re-edited as 1991’s The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit) and The Beatles Anthology (1995) as the most important non-fiction works, though the latter is an invaluable repository of recordings rather than a shaped work. Individual Beatles have been profiled in the likes of LennoNYC (2010) and Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011).

Among the offshoots are Yellow Submarine (1968), an Apple Records project regarded as a contractual obligation by the Beatles, and the derivatives All This and World War II (1976), Eric Idle and Neil Innes’ Harrison-endorsed Rutles spoofs All You Need Is Cash (1975) and Can’t Buy Me Lunch (2002), the Bee Gees vehicle Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), and Julie Taymor’s jukebox musical Across the Universe (2007).

The agglomeration of material has piled myth upon myth, as did the media saturation that greeted the quartet’s consecration as superstars. In self-defense, they erected walls of irony, impenetrability, and obfuscation, as exemplified by the foursome’s mocking, evasive responses to the questions put to them – by journalists denounced by Ringo as “living behind a smokescreen of bourgeois clichés” – at the press party in A Hard Day’s Night.

Lester and Michael Lindsay-Hogg are the filmmakers who have mostly astutely captured the mental state of Beatledom. In his two Beatles vehicles, Lester expertly channeled their youthful insolence, antic energy, and acerbic humor. Let It Be director Lindsay-Hogg’s experience of capturing the group’s miserable January 1969 rehearsals at Twickenham Studios, which prompted Harrison to leave the band temporarily after he argued with Lennon about the latter’s waning commitment, augured his shrewd direction of The Two of Us, which imagines a rapprochement between McCartney and Lennon in Manhattan on April 24, 1976.

Yoko Ono’s divisive presence at the Twickenham sessions is counterpointed by her absence from her and John’s apartment at The Dakota when Paul comes calling. Lennon’s withdrawal from the Beatles, the subtext of Let It Be – notwithstanding his mostly pacific presence in Lindsay-Hogg’s final cut – is the betrayal that still bugs McCartney in The Two of Us, though he couches it in terms of their damaged friendship – PAUL: “I felt like I was losin’ me [sic] best mate”; JOHN: “You were never that close” – rather than their forsaken partnership. Lennon’s riposte falls like a blow felt by the viewer.

‘A Hard Day’s Night’

The Beatles were blessed by Lester, whom they chose to direct A Hard Day’s Night because of his success translating the innovatively surreal radio comedy show The Goons, spearheaded by Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, for television in the 1950s. In 1960, he acted in and directed Sellers, Milligan, and Leo McKern in The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film, a short homage to silent comedy that would have enormous influence on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the broader TV comedy films starring Ronnie Barker, and the filmed excerpts in Benny Hill’s shows.

Dadaist illogic, verbal non-sequiturs, and absurdist physical comedy (such as the Beatles’ nonsensical cavortings on the field behind the television studio) pepper the faux-vérité A Hard Day’s Night, as well as Help! Lester also imported such Brechtian and French new wavetechniques as direct address, sudden cuts, ironic title cards, and, in the Beatles themselves, the use of non-actors.

What narrative there is in A Hard Day’s Night is seemingly non-determined, another new wave trope. Two-thirds of the film have elapsed when the depressive Ringo escapes from a TV studio to the consternation of the uptight director (Victor Spinetti) of their performance on a variety show. The drummer’s aimless wandering around London jeopardizes the final run-through for the show. The troublemaker who coaxes him to leave in the first place is Paul’s grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), a philistine who, feigning pathos like the old “rag and bone” man he played in the celebrated Steptoe and Son sitcom, slyly exploits Beatlemania.


Inspired by the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and The Goons, Help! is ostensibly a James Bond-like spoof about the attempts of a swami (McKern) and his Thuggee cult to wrest from Ringo’s finger a sacrificial ring, which is also sought by a mad British boffin (Spinetti) and his bumbling assistant (Roy Kinnear, whose son Rory played the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein in Lennon Naked). An obvious MacGuffin, the ring seemingly originated in ‘The Ring That Kills’ episode of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915-16).

Help! was not intended to develop the Beatles’ screen personas. It was conceived by Lester as a Pop Art film stitched together, like A Hard Day’s Night, by the band’s staged performances of their love songs, which contribute nothing to the story but offer pure pleasure. The film’s exorbitant use of color mimicked its use in comic books, as the Beatles’ misadventures and their extrications from perilous situations echoed those of superheroes. The mise-en-scène is often Surrealistic, a near-3D shot of Paul’s projected face pierced by Thuggee darts suggesting a sadistic version of Man Ray’s ‘Glass Tears.’

Influenced by the artist Richard Hamilton (who had been influenced by Marcel Duchamp) and the art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway, Help! both satirizes and embraces American consumer culture and the aesthetics of contemporary technology. For example, the Beatles share a modern ‘gaff’ hollowed out of four terraced houses and tricked out with facile mod cons. It was the prototype for the Monkees’ TV show beach-house and the Spice Girls’ pad in Spice World.

In a running joke, the Spinetti character constantly denounces British gadgetry and covets mass-produced American equipment. His sci-fi contraption the “Relativity Cadenza” slows the Beatles’ movements and reduces their voices to incoherent throbs – so that the audience becomes aware of the manipulation of film speed and sound.

Less energetic in Help! than they were in A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles are reduced to blithe, modish mannequins (or in the case of Ringo an accident-prone movie clown like Buster Keaton or Harry Langdon). Beyond playing their songs, they are wholly passive – pawns of an absurd plot that moves them to the Austrian Alps and the Bahamas. Their real lives were something like that, as Eight Days a Week indicates.

Exploiting the myth

The ongoing desire for filmmakers to celebrate the Beatles’ universal appeal and to understand the personalities behind their rise and fall – Lennon’s primarily – is understandable. As Martin Amis once wrote, “To be against the Beatles is to be against life” (a view not shared by the Lennon who sang “I don’t believe in Beatles” on his first solo album). Fictional films devoted to Harrison, Starr, and Paul McCartney have yet to be made, though Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984), written by and starring McCartney, was a whimsical day-in-the-life approach to being an ex-Beatle.

In the light of Lennon’s 1980 murder and Harrison’s 2001 death from cancer, Paul McCartney Really Is Dead: The Last Testament of George Harrison? (2010) is the most distasteful of mockumentaries, a testament to the potential for exploiting the Beatles’ triumphant and tragic journey. The title of the 2013 marital breakdown drama The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a more acceptable form of exploitation.

Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed and Snodgrass are wish-fulfilment fantasies. Their yearnings – ‘What if I could have a met a Beatle back in the day?’ ‘What if John had lived?’ – reflect the question that tormented the fans and needled their idols from 1970 through 1980: Will the Beatles get back together? Good Ol’ Freda, which memoralizes Freda Kelly’s experiences running the Beatles’ fan club, is about a fan’s wish fulfilled: to be one of their most important aides.

‘Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed’

The Fab Four were always a vessel for people’s hopes and dreams. The Spanish novelist-filmmaker David Trueba’s Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed sounds like a more nuanced version of Robert Zemeckis’ exuberant 1978 Beatlemania comedy I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Partially a critique of political repression and rule by fear in Franco’s Spain, Trueba’s whimsical film follows a teacher (Javier Cámaro), who uses Beatles lyrics to teach English, on a pilgrimage with a runaway fan and a pregnant young woman to meet John Lennon in the strawberry fields of Almeria where he is acting in Lester’s How I Won the War in 1966.


A British TV film broadcast by Sky, Snodgrass speculates what would have happened to Lennon, and by extension his artistically diminished group, if he had walked out on them in 1962, furious that they’d been persuaded to release the tepid ‘How Do You Do It?’ instead of ‘Love Me Do’ as their first single. Adapted by the former music journalist David Quantick from a novelette by Ian R. McLeod, this bitter reverie of obdurate working-class anti-authoritarianism – partially stoked by the need to see Lennon’s unique brand of asperity embodied anew – saves him from his assassin’s bullet, but at a price. Starring Ian Hart, abrasive and hectoring as Lennon in The Hours and Times and Backbeat, it shows him living in Birmingham in 1991, an unemployed 50-year-old curmudgeon who can’t pay his rent. ‘Snodgrass’ is John’s catchall term for conformist males – each female equivalent is a ‘Doris.’

The story is sparked by a local show by the remaining Beatles (including the undead Stu Sutcliffe), a band that never quite made it and which plays its most trite – and least Lennon-like – numbers and wan solo efforts on the nostalgia circuit. In posing the question, ‘Was Lennon’s martyrdom preferable to a long decline into crippling emotional dyspepsia?,’ the film ignores the fact that Lennon, having just released the Double Fantasy album and stable in his family life, was creatively and personally content at the time of his killing. Yet its ‘what if?’ premise is undeniably tantalizing.

‘Good Ol’ Freda’

Ryan White’s unpretentious Kickstarter-financed documentary Good Ol’ Freda is a more comforting film. A level-headed Liverpudlian, Kelly was a 17-year-old attendee of the Beatles’ lunchtime concerts at the Cavern Club and an acquaintance of the group when, in 1961, she was hired as the secretary of their official fan club by Brian Epstein’s NEMS company. Indispensable to her ‘boys,’ she kept her job until 1971, a year beyond the group’s existence. She initiated the film for the benefit of her grandson (by her daughter), having regretted that she hadn’t recorded her anecdotes for her late son.

The montages in Beatlemania news footage and the journey sequences in A Hard Day’s Night frequently juxtapose the Beatles’ swooning, weeping, or otherwise discombobulated girl fans with the Beatles themselves as benign, cheeky, but slightly aloof young men who do not advertise their sexual power or needs through facial expressions and body language (in contrary to the lustful innuendos in some of Lennon’s lyrics). A Hard Day’s Night underscored the Beatles as pray: the blonde women seated beside John in the after-hours club sequence gives him the film’s most lascivious glance. In Help!, the Beatles live together in asexual harmony. Iain Softley’s Backbeat, a celebration of the Beatles as precursors of punk and grunge, took advantage of the passage of thirty years to dismiss the squeaky clean Beatles Epstein created in 1962 by showing the pre-Epstein Lennon and Sutcliffe rutting with groupies shortly after their arrival in Hamburg.

In contrast, Good Ol’ Freda drinks deeply of nostalgia for the early Epstein era when, publicly at least, a façade of sexual restraint was maintained. It offers the smiling reminiscences of a loyal woman who insisted that every Beatles memento sent to the fans – every lock of hair or pillow case – was authentic. She fired three young helpers after one of them tried to send a hank of her sister’s hair to a Beatle lover.

When Lennon fired Freda herself at the Liverpool Empire concert hall for talking to members of the Moody Blues and then agreed to take her back because his bandmates said they would keep her on, she made him genuflect before her. Nearly 70 in the film, she sheds decades when she relates this anecdote. The point is she didn’t regard the Beatles as icons but as professional brothers. She also became a substitute daughter to Ringo Starr’s parents.

What’s revelatory about Kelly’s anecdotes is that they aren’t revelatory. The details of the Beatles she shares are seldom memorable, but they cumulatively humanize them. Her voice is the voice of a woman who enjoyed her closeness to the world’s four most popular men but wasn’t seduced by it. Coy on the subject of whether she had been romantically involved with any of the Beatles, she preserves their mystique as the unspoiled young men admired by their gossiping neighbors in Help! and adored by millions of hyperventilating schoolgirls, while preserving her own aura of modesty in the presence of so much testosterone. Trusted in the Beatles employ because of her unfailing discretion, she wasn’t about to kiss and tell on camera decades later.

‘Magical Mystery Tour

For all her circumspection, Kelly is worth listening to as a Beatles employee and non-fanatic fan who was privy to their creative mistakes and evolving professional-personal tensions. She quietly opines that the Magical Mystery Tour film, initiated by McCartney as a creative salve following Epstein’s death, was a failure. A viewing of that chaotic road musical, which foisted the raucous sensibility of the seaside charabanc day trip onto the druggy atmosphere of a British equivalent of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, shows a single shot of Kelly on the bus, an apprehensive fellow traveler. More poignantly, she laments how ‘the closeness’ of the Beatles had evaporated by the end of their run. Good Ol’ Freda is less a prismatic look at her former employees, though, than the portrait of a woman of integrity who, despite the down-to-earth nature of her disclosures, can’t help but fuel anew the Beatles myths – the lovable Mop Tops, the psychedelic adventurers – even as she is drawn into them as a supporting actor.

‘Mersey Boys’ and ‘Beatles’

The micro-budgeted Mersey Boys, another Kickstarter project, is based on the e-novel by Steve Farrell. It was developed in tandem with a stage musical by the New York film and theater company La Muse Venale, Inc., and is scheduled for release next year. It’s about an Irish-American art teacher who clashes with Lennon at the Liverpool College of Art. Peter Flinth’s Beatles was adapted from the Norwegian novelist Lars Saabye Christensen’s 1984 best-seller. Narrated in flashback by an asylum escapee, it tells of his and his three best friends’ Beatles obsession – each boy adopted a Beatle first name – their politicization, involvement with girls and hippiedom, and drug use.

Playing themselves

The kaleidoscopic nature of Beatles cinema has, inevitably, had the effect of complicating perceptions about the personalities of the four key members, Epstein (in The Hours and Times), and to a lesser extent original members Sutcliffe and Pete Best (in Backbeat). Though the Beatles appeared as themselves off-duty in the Maysles documentary, there are moments when it becomes clear they have switched ‘on’ for the camera. On the featurette on the making of The Beatles First U.S. Visit included in the 2004 DVD, Albert Maysles observes, ‘The guys were always very much themselves. Anytime a professional cameraman would show up, [he] would say, “Do this, do that, do this, do that.” And so, for them, being in front of a camera meant performing for it, and so that had become their natural way of behaving and we stuck with it.’

Yet in The Brian Epstein Story, the book that accompanied Anthony Wall and Debbie Geller’s exemplary two-part 1998 documentary, Maysles says that the Beatles’ ‘performing’ became problematic – ‘It was almost impossible for us to get them out of this mode’ – indicating that their ironic posturing had become a norm. It wasn’t the whole story. ‘There were some very informal moments where they got out of that performing mode, thank goodness,’ Maysles added. ‘There was a moment I remember with Paul reflecting on things and he said that he felt somewhat depressed.’

Outlaws no more

By the time of A Hard Day’s Night, which was greatly influenced by the Maysles’ film, this performing had hardened into enjoyable shtick. It affirmed Lennon as the irreverent madcap; Paul as the innocent; George as the quietly scornful dark horse; and Ringo as the lugubrious loner-loser. Collectively, they are like a cross between the Marx Brothers and the authority-flouting 11-year-old schoolboys of Richmal Crompton’s Just William books. When Ringo ambles by the Thames, he encounters a truant probably modeled on Crompton’s rascally hero, William Brown.

The implication is that Beatlemania and media attention have cut the Beatles off from the freedom and recklessness enjoyed by William and his fellow ‘Outlaws.’ The most absurd scene in Help! has the Beatles going for a quiet pint in a Chiswick pub to avoid being mobbed. The tiger that threatens Ringo in the basement after he has fallen through a trapdoor is less menacing than the crowd that swarms at the Beatles on their arrival at Euston Station in A Hard Day’s Night.

‘Yellow Submarine’

They were also trapped in those screen personas, which were frankly bowdlerized. There are no hints, either in A Hard Day’s Night or Help!, of Lennon’s fabled asperity, and little of McCartney’s shrewdness, Harrison’s spiritualism (emergent in his performance of “Blue Jay Way” in Magical Mystery Tour), or Starr’s phlegm. In a 2013 interview in Mojo magazine, however, McCartney cautioned against rote readings of even these personalities, intimating that Lennon had a soft side, Harrison was far from spiritual to start with, and that Starr was not just a sad-eyed clown, but a man who did much to shape the Beatles’ image. The Lester films and Yellow Submarine, the psychedelically animated anti-fascist allegory in which the Beatles’ voices were impersonated by actors, are thus unreliable in terms of relaying each man’s complex personality.

‘Let It Be’

The legend became fact, however, so that when Let It Be arrived it was a shock. The Beatles are not boys being convivially “on” in Lindsay-Hogg’s vérité documentary but serious men enduring the ordeal of being filmed making music under duress. Though there are light moments – Starr and McCartney duet on piano – they clearly no longer enjoy each other’s company. Starr had quit and then returned during the recording of The Beatles (aka The White Album) in 1968. Harrison would do the same on the so-called Get Back sessions for Let It Be, and Lennon was mostly disengaged. The elephant in the room at Twickenham, drably lit in keeping with the atmosphere, is Yoko Ono, who adheres to Lennon’s side or disappears with him for a waltz.

McCartney is optimistic – the lone member who saw a future for the Beatles (as Lennon Naked would reiterate though Andrew Scott’s sharp performance) – but overbearing. When he criticizes Harrison’s playing of a riff, the guitarist makes a passive-aggressive response, saying he will play the way McCartney wants him to play or not play at all if McCartney doesn’t want him to.

When McCartney, nostalgic for the good old days, complains to Lennon about Harrison’s reluctance to return to playing live and stresses their need to overcome “the hurdle of his nervousness,” Lennon, self-absorbed throughout, registers his boredom with the topic. Harrison is mostly dour, Starr depressed. McCartney’s hogging of the limelight during the playing of “Let It Be” and other songs, during which he unctuously makes eye contact with the camera, was guaranteed to irk his colleagues – and did, Lennon especially.

Let It Be‘s relationship to A Hard Day’s Night and Help! is deconstructive. It’s first 50 or so minutes desecrate the myths of harmony and collective rebelliousness that had evolved over nine years, from that of Liverpudlian tearaways in Hamburg to that of be-suited insurgents hitting London and puncturing the pretensions of the stuck-up media types in A Hard Day’s Night, to that of lysergically-galvanized hippie gadabouts in Magical Mystery Tour, and beyond. The last 20 minutes – devoted to five of the songs they performed during their 42-minute impromptu rooftop concert atop the Apple building on Savile Row – deconstructs the deconstruction, presenting the four as a suddenly liberated and inspired rock combo (augmented by keyboardist Billy Preston) in fine live fettle. As the performance unfolded, Lindsay-Hogg brilliantly recorded a vox-pop survey on the street below that elicited a range of reactions, ranging from a businessman’s disapproval to a cabbie’s enthusiasm. Typically provocative, the Beatles’ last live performance thus took the temperature of the British class system.

It was filmed on January 30, 1969. On September 20, after the completion of the Abbey Road album, Lennon quit the band, a decision the Beatles and Apple kept under wraps. McCartney pre-emptively announced that “the Beatle thing is over” in a Life magazine interview published on November 7 but not widely reported. Official word came in a press release issued by McCartney the following April 10. The break-up was crassly handled in Lennon Naked – John throwing a stone through a window in Paul’s house.

‘The Hours and Times’ Is it really over, even now? There is a sense in which the makers of Beatles-related films – who cannot be roundly dismissed as opportunists, but must to some extent be representative of the collective consciousness – seek though their efforts to perpetuate the Beatles cinematically, as if the group is a life force that cannot be allowed to die. While this enables the two generations born since 1970 (to whom the Beatles’ music is omnipresent) to share in manufactured nostalgia for a phenomenon they never experienced at first hand, four of the five biographical films are anxiety-inducing.

Focusing on Epstein’s desire for Lennon, as expressed during their April 1963 vacation in Barcelona, Christopher Münch’s The Hours and Times is a meditative hour-long masterpiece that transcends its queerness and its status as a “Beatles film.” It is no less unsettling, however, than Nowhere Boy (1955-58, teenage John is caught between his estranged mother Julia and devoted Aunt Mimi), Backbeat (1960-62, John competes for the doomed Beatles bassist Stu Sutcliffe with his girlfriend Astrid Kirchner, to whom he is also attracted, during the Hamburg years), Lennon Naked (1964-70, John abandons Cynthia and Julia for Yoko, grudgingly makes up with his deadbeat father Alfred, and repudiates his bandmates), and The Two of Us.


Backbeat offers a blatantly plastic vision of Hamburg’s seediness and is simplistic in its characterization of Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) as a fey abstract expressionist painter, but, like The Hours and Times, it is energized by Ian Hart’s fiercely acerbic Lennon. The Two of Us, written like a play by Mark Stanfield is a wry, unexpectedly delicate fiction. It’s structuring absence is Yoko, out of town when Paul (Aidan Quinn) calls on John (Jared Harris) at the Dakota Building. At the drama’s core is the realization that, no matter how intense, love that isn’t sexual will always be trumped by love that’s biological or has a greater Oedipal pull. “Mother?” Paul asks, wondering who John means when he speaks of his wife.

Why are these biopics so troubling? It is not simply that they focus on Lennon’s neuroses, instability, and cruelty, the result of his well-documented childhood abandonment by his parents, which is the wretched subject of Nowhere Boy and explains his cosmic disaffection in Lennon Naked. They are anguished films because the more they variously strain to heal retrospectively the damaged relationships between Lennon and Julia, Lennon and Sutcliffe, Lennon and Alfred, and Lennon and McCartney – in accordance with every film that seeks to impose closure and a modicum of equanimity on its story – the more they remind us that love and loyalty sundered are seldom fully retrievable.

Lennon and McCartney did become friends again, but the gentle détente established in The Two of Us falls apart in light of Lennon’s admission in the 1980 Playboy interview that he became irritated with McCartney not calling first before he would show up with his guitar at the Dakota. The Hours and Times alone avoids the trap of over-determination and is less heavy-handed than The Two of Us and Lennon Naked in alluding to Lennon’s and Epstein’s existences in futures that will be denied them.

‘Lennon Naked’

Burdened by a dialogue-heavy script and overt symbolism, Lennon Naked is the hardest of the Beatles biopics to watch. Lennon’s spiteful treatment of his wife Cynthia and harsh dismissal of the other Beatles reveals a man desperate to regain his freedom. (He does fleetingly touch Paul’s face on leaving the Apple boardroom). The symmetry of John self-pityingly harping on about his abandonment by his parents (mirrored in the premature death of his father-figure Epstein) and then walking away from Julian has the ring of truth. So, too, does the film’s lack of resolution – it merely sends John and Yoko off to New York after he renounces Britain and the hyenas in the press. Though skilfully played by Christopher Eccleston, this John is a humorless scourge.

The Two of Us’

The antidote to Lennon Naked‘s shrillness is The Two of Uss presentation of John and Paul, who are initially guarded in each other’s company. They gradually open up, bickering, duetting on “Come Go With Me” (the first song McCartney heard John play with the Quarrymen in 1957), meditating, dining in an Italian restaurant where John teases a naïve young male fan and insults a middle-aged couple, and talk of heading to the Saturday Night Live studio following a cash offer by Lorne Michaels for them to perform on the show (not knowing, of course, that they are together).

At the start of the film, Lennon appears emasculated and directionless as a result of having adopted his house-husband role (one of the happiest times of his life according to LennoNYC). But revived by McCartney’s warmth, he becomes the old aggressive, witty, provocative John. He even feigns to kiss McCartney on the mouth when they are in an elevator. The “kiss” is snubbed and Paul makes a joke about Epstein’s attraction to John. Yet the scene is redolent of the unconscious masculine-feminine dynamic that may have existed between the two (and often informed their biases as lyricists early on – Paul writing more about romantic love, John smuggling in references to sex). It recalls the moment in Let It Be when McCartney, buoyantly singing “Two of Us” at the microphone beside Lennon, makes several girlish gestures.

This is not to imply a gay attraction between Lennon and McCartney, but to suggest how movies, The Hours and Times and Backbeat not least, have tapped into the powerful sexual aura exuded by Lennon (which was patently modified by his involvement with Yoko). The script of The Two of Us is at times too knowing and overly larded with Beatle lore: such as Lennon’s repeated digs at McCartney over the triviality of “Silly Love Songs” and McCartney’s disapproval of Lennon’s hiatus from making music (his naming of John’s “lost weekend,” when he temporarily split from Yoko, is absurd).

Yet it is a poignant story of broken love, a reflection on what has been and can never be again, that transcends Beatledom while burnishing the myth – as it is burnished with each fresh Beatles movie.

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