Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 6, 2010)
As the 70th anniversary of John Lennon’s birth, 2010 saw plenty of new product related to the former Beatle. Much of this followed the auditory realm, but we also got some video programs. LennoNYC offered an authorized, semi-sanitized view of the last nine years of John’s life, while Lennon Naked goes for an earlier period – and a darker tone.
Naked covers 1964 to 1971. To satisfy manager Brian Epstein (Rory Kinnear), in 1964 John (Christopher Eccleston) briefly meets his estranged father Freddie (Christopher Fairbank) at a publicity event. We flash forward a few years, and John spends a bit more time with his dad at his mansion. The film shows aspects of their relationship as well as Lennon’s disintegrating marriage to Cynthia (Claudie Blakley) and burgeoning relationship with Yoko Ono (Naoko Mori).
Even the cheeriest portraits of Lennon indicate that he could be a harsh, difficult man. At least those offer glimpses of his charisma and talent, however, which are qualities absent from the utterly charmless Naked.
As a psychological portrait, the film fails. When it attempts to offer some insights into Lennon’s relentless bitterness, it essentially just chalks his concerns up to “daddy left me”. Granted, any 82-minute TV movie would find it tough to fully investigate a complex character like Lennon, but Naked barely tries. It just throws out simplistic notions and goes no further than that.
As a biography, Naked also goes nowhere. It almost totally ignores Lennon’s relationship with the Beatles, so you’ll get little feel for his life with the band. How can one examine Lennon’s life from 1964 to 1971 and almost totally eliminate his creative experiences? The other Fabs occasionally show up at press conferences and the like, but they’re bit players.
Heck, even Yoko doesn’t get much play. Again, Lennon’s anger with his father remains the main focus, even though Freddie doesn’t show up for much of the movie. Instead, we just see John act badly and spout venom. Which he was wont to do, but geez, wasn’t there more to him than that?
Not according to Naked, and Eccleston’s performance doesn’t help. He simply spits his lines in a rush, a technique apparently meant to convey personality. Instead, it just makes it look like the film was running long so the director encouraged him to speak quickly.
It doesn’t help that Eccleston is far too old to play Lennon. The John depicted here was 23 at the film’s start and almost 31 at the end. Hilariously, Eccleston is 46 years old! Didn’t anyone involved think that maybe it was a stretch to cast an actor literally twice as old as his character at the movie’s beginning? And Eccleston looks 46 as well; he’d find it hard to pass for late thirties, much less mid-to-late twenties.
Some viewers have been able to get past this obstacle, but I can’t. I never got used to the radical disconnect between Eccleston’s haggard appearance and the young man he portrayed. The filmmakers shoot themselves in the foot via the use of archival shots of the real Lennon; those make it even more apparent how ridiculously old Eccleston is.
The film’s “Beatles” are also far too old for their parts, which I guess is supposed to make sure we don’t notice Eccleston’s age. At least some of the others – Mori, Fairbank, Kinnear – come closer to the correct ages.
Even without the consistent distraction of the too old actors, Naked is a mess. It probably works best for viewers who don’t know much about the Beatles’ history, as they’ll be less distracted by the film’s leaps of chronology. It actually gets a good number of events correct, but then it plops the Beatles in non-existent press conferences and the like, events that will distract the more Fab-aware in the audience.
The leaps of accuracy and the too old performers don’t sum up all the problems here. In fact, the main concern probably stems from the disjointed nature of Naked. It essentially offers a collection of little episodes without any strong narrative to carry it. These attempt to flesh out our understanding of Lennon’s life, but instead, they do the opposite: they just leave us with a fractured, simplistic view of a complicated personality.