The Many Resurrections of John Lennon
It’s been nearly 30 years since John Lennon was murdered outside a New York apartment building. In his wake, there’s been no shortage of fictional John Lennons to take his place, with IMDB listing no fewer than thirty-three film and TV shows featuring Lennon as a character (not including those where he played himself). Here are some of the more notable Lennons to appear.
Beatlemania: The Movie was already in production before John 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 playing John Lennon. Marshall Crenshaw also played this incarnation of Lennon, getting his big break in the music business when he joined a touring production in 1981. Crenshaw later also portrayed Buddy Holly in La Bamba (1987).
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 John Lennon accompanied manager Brian Epstein on a holiday trip to Barcelona in 1963, won awards at Sundance and The Berlin Film Festival. 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 John Lennon.
Hart would reprise the role three years later in the bigger-budgeted Backbeat (1994), which chronicled the band’s formative days in rough and tumble Hamburg, Germany. The soundtrack for the film didn’t use Beatle originals, but relied on songs the band reportedly covered in their early years, re-recorded by a supergroup of 90s musicians that included Dave Grohl from Nirvana, 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 John Lennon singing “Long Tall Sally” rather than himself.
That same year, Forrest Gump would sit down next to John Lennon on the Dick Cavett show, where his recollections of a trip to China would inspire Lennon’s song “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 Mark David Chapman in the days leading up to the murder, featured Mark Lindsay Chapman – no relation – in the role of Lennon (the similarities between their names reportedly earlier prompted NBC to drop the actor from consideration as Lennon in a 1985 made-for-TV movie). Lennon also briefly appeared in the Bob Dylan-inspired art house movie I’m Not There, and The Beatles had a cameo 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 Dewey Cox to LSD. The theme song to the movie was written by none other than Marshall Crenshaw, who, as earlier noted, began his musical career portraying Lennon in the Beatlemania 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 by Matthew Broderick and Dennis Leary). Animated Lennons have surfaced in “Robot Chicken” and a show called “House of Rock,” where Lennon shares a house 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, opening in U.S. theatres this weekend 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 John 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.”