John Lennon in December 1980 (AP Photo)
Thirty years ago today, John Lennon was murdered outside a New York apartment building. Since his death, there’s been no shortage of fictional Lennons, with IMDB listing no fewer than 33 movies and television shows featuring Lennon as a character (not including those where he appeared as himself). Here are some of the more notable Lennons we’ve seen.
Beatlemania: The Movie was already in production before Lennon died, but wouldn’t hit screens until 1981. Based on a Broadway musical that had been running since 1977, the widely-panned film featured David Leon as Lennon. Marshall Crenshaw got his big break in the music business when he joined a touring production of the Broadway show in 1981. Crenshaw would later portray another rock legend, appearing as Buddy Holly in 1987's La Bamba.
The Hours and the Times (1991) is among the most critically acclaimed films to feature Lennon. The film, a fictionalized account of what might have transpired when Lennon accompanied manager Brian Epstein on a holiday trip to Barcelona in 1963, won awards at Sundance and The Berlin Film Festival. Fellow Liverpudlian Ian Hart (who you might also know as Professor Quirell from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) was widely praised for his portrayal of the young Lennon.
Hart would reprise the role three years later in the bigger-budget movie Backbeat, which chronicled the band’s formative days in rough and tumble Hamburg, Germany. The soundtrack for the film didn’t use Beatles originals, but instead relied on songs the band reportedly covered in their early years, re-recorded by a supergroup of '90s musicians that included Nirvana's Dave Grohl, Mike Mills of R.E.M. and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. The musicians strove to convey the raw, energetic sound the Beatles had in their infancy, and the film was generally well-received. It did, however, have one formidable critic in the form of Paul McCartney, who was annoyed to see Lennon singing "Long Tall Sally" rather than himself.
In 1994's Forrest Gump, the title character would sit next to Lennon on The Dick Cavett Show, with Gump's recollections of a trip to China inspiring Lennon to write "Imagine." The filmmakers used archival footage of Lennon with new dialogue dubbed by actor-musician Joe Stefanelli, who would later form a Beatles tribute band called The Mop Tops and appear in a 2009 Filipino production of Beatlemania.
2007 was a banner year for fictional Lennons. Chapter 27, which chronicles the life of Lennon's killer Mark David Chapman in the days leading up to the murder, featured Mark Lindsay Chapman – no relation – in the role of Lennon (reportedly, the similarities in the names of the actor and the assassin had earlier prompted NBC to drop the actor from consideration for a 1985 made-for-TV movie about Lennon). Lennon also briefly appeared in the Bob Dylan-inspired art house movie I’m Not There, and all four Beatles were featured in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. In the rock star bio-pic parody, Paul Rudd’s Lennon gets in a fistfight with Jack Black’s McCartney inside the Maharishi’s ashram before introducing the Cox character to LSD. The theme song to the movie was written by none other than Marshall Crenshaw, who, as earlier noted, began his career portraying Lennon in the Beatlemania stage musical.
On the small screen, Lennon has been a more or less constant presence, appearing in made-for-TV movies, BBC Playhouse episodes, and in Saturday Night Live skits (played at different times by Matthew Broderick and Dennis Leary). Animated Lennons have surfaced in Robot Chicken and a show called House of Rock, where Lennon is roommates with a host of other dead rock stars.
Lennon as fictional fodder shows no signs of abating with Nowhere Boy, a film chronicling Lennon’s pre-Beatles adolescent years, playing in U.S. theatres this fall and a reboot of Yellow Submarine in development for 2012. Film rights to the Alan Goldsher mash-up novel Paul is Undead were recently snapped up, which means audiences may also soon be able to see Lennon and the rest of the Fab Four depicted as brain-eating zombies (well, except for Ringo – he’s a ninja).
It’s no surprise that such a hugely important cultural figure continues to inspire us, but one can’t help but wonder what Lennon himself would have made of all the posthumous tributes. "Everybody loves you," he once said, "when you’re six foot in the ground."