Musician biopics run the gamut from the very good (Ray) to the very awful (Daydream Believers: The Monkees Story). Most of them follow a formula...a rags to riches story with the usual early childhoods struggles and setbacks achieving fame, then a period of addiction to (insert your choice of drugs, alcohol, porn, or any combination of these) followed by a career fall and finally, redemption...or sometimes death. But when I came across a 1985 television movie on YouTube called John and Yoko: A Love Story, strangely enough, I was not skeptical. I'd never heard of the film and don't remember it airing on American television (despite uncovering a New York Times review of it) and I have to surmise that it was a British production. It also has an off-kilter running time for American TV screens: without commercials, it's almost two and a half hours. Obviously, John and Yoko: A Love Story chronicles the relationship of Lennon and Ono...one of rock and roll's most notorious couples and soulmate pairings. The film also shows quite a bit of the breakdown of the Beatles, as Lennon met Yoko in the mid-60s and the group officially disbanded in 1970. It even includes a young, pre-Doctor Who Peter Capaldi as George Harrison declaring his famous line to Paul during the recording of Let It Be, "I'll play whatever you want me to play, or I won't play at all." And keep your eyes peeled for an uncredited cameo by Austin Powers himself, Mike Myers. The main reason this movie worked for me is the marvelous casting: Mark McGann as John Lennon and Kim Miyori as Yoko Ono are probably two of the closest actors chosen to play the Beatle and his wife. McGann in particular hails from Liverpool and has portrayed Lennon on stage for decades. Not only does he look like Lennon, and speak like Lennon, but he sings very much like Lennon. It took me a few seconds to figure out that it's McGann singing "Imagine" over the opening credits. He also has that same sense of humor brimming beneath the surface as evident by the wiggle in his eyebrows and glint in his eyes. No, it's not a perfect match, but it's close--thwarting a problem that is common to celebrity movie biographies.
Not that it matters, but much less effort was put into casting the other members of the Beatles. The actor playing Paul McCartney--Kenneth Price--looks like your everyday cute soap opera actor of the era without sharing a single facial feature with the musician he's portraying. Phillip Walsh doesn't resemble Ringo and the wide eyed Capaldi, even with being slapped with an oversized mustache, doesn't look much like Harrison, although he does give the best side eyes and snarky remarks when John begins bringing Yoko into the studio.
The scene in the art gallery where he first meets Yoko as she's preparing her exhibit the day before it opens plays out exactly the way I've always pictured it. Lennon is bemused and fascinated by Yoko's avant-garde art pieces and impressed by her positivity (viewing the simple word "yes" on the ceiling through a magnifying glass.) He wants to hammer a nail into one of her interactive pieces, but she balks because it will ruin it before it's open to the public, so she asks him to pay money first at which he replies he'll hammer an imaginary nail into the piece. Yoko was impressed with his sense of humor, despite having no clue who he was. (Hint, ladies: if you want to land a date with a rock star, just pretend you haven't the slightest idea who he is. This cluelessness card was also played by Pattie Boyd when she first met George Harrison.)
Yoko sends letters to John while he's off on the Beatles' Indian retreat ("Look up in the sky. When you see a cloud, think of me," writes Yoko.) Their affair begins after a few more meetings when he returns to England. A post-coital Lennon declares, "There's no looking back, you know. This is it." Both divorce their spouses, Yoko fights her first husband for custody of her daughter Kyoto, and the press gets worked into a frenzy. From there, they get married and Lennon sheds his "Beatle John" persona for that of husband and eventually, father.
My fellow Beatles fans won't learn anything new from watching this movie; most of us know about John and Yoko's relationship and marriage ups and downs. One thing I didn't know is that Ono suffered from two miscarriages before becoming a mother to Sean in the mid-70s. A major criticism of the film is that it was made with Ono's close cooperation. That means, of course, that some details were changed or omitted to present her in a more favorable light. I noticed a portrayal of a strong relationship between Lennon, Ono, and his first son, Julian, in the late '70s when in reality, Julian Lennon says he didn't get along with his stepmom at all. But Ono did allow Lennon's songs to be used throughout the production, which isn't a bad thing, and it's awfully nice to hear a good portion of so many Lennon compositions being sung by someone with close vocals.
Lennon's "lost weekend" period is highlighted in the movie, preceded by his blatant infidelity in front of Ono which is what prompted the separation in the first place. It concludes with the 1974 Madison Square Garden concert he performed with Elton John where he reunited with Yoko backstage. A lot of people forget that celebrities are ordinary people like all of us, so it was kind of nice that the filmmakers threw in some scenes between John and his aunt Mimi, who chides his long hair and bearded appearance, and his introduction to Yoko's parents (turns out they liked him.)
I was dreading the end of the movie for obvious reasons. Fortunately, the filmmakers handle it the softest way they could, with a freeze-frame shot of Lennon being confronted by his murderer before the credits roll. For a made-for-television movie, this one was well done, well acted, and a lot more satisfying than the usual fairy tale puffery presented on Lifetime and Hallmark. You can view the movie here on YouTube.
Hi, I'm Pam - thanks for visiting Go Retro! If you've ever been called an old soul like I have, or you were lucky enough to actually live during the mid-20th century in America, then you're in the right place!
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