- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2000

John Lennon is one of the more interesting and important creative voices of the latter half of the 20th century — which is part of the reason NBC's made-for-television movie "In His Life: The John Lennon Story" feels so incomplete.

The movie airs tomorrow from 9 to 11 p.m. on NBC, only days before the 20th anniversary of Mr. Lennon's murder by gunman Mark David Chapman.

The film is certainly well-timed, with the new Beatles collection, "1," shooting to the top of the U.S. and British charts. Rolling Stone magazine and MTV also named three Beatles songs, in addition to one each from Mr. Lennon and fellow Beatle Paul McCartney, on their list of the top 100 pop songs since 1963.

Countless books and a few documentaries — including a recent ABC special — have tried to tell the early story of the Beatles, but few of them, other than the Fab Four's own films "Help" and "A Hard Day's Night," have been insightful.

"In My Life" covers Mr. Lennon's early years — from age 16 to 24 — as he learns to play guitar, helps form the Beatles and begins to taste success as the "British invasion" starts in the United States.

The movie opens with a wonderful transition between Mr. Lennon's first guitar being auctioned off for an exorbitant sum and 16-year-old John Lennon, played by Irish actor Phillip McQuillan, viewing the guitar in a newspaper ad.

Mr. Lennon begs his caretaker aunt, Mimi Smith (Blair Brown), to buy him the approximately $10 instrument, but to no avail. Her mantra, repeated throughout the film, is that he needs to apply himself in school — and guitar-playing is not the way to accomplish that.

His family life plays a prominent role in the film. Mr. Lennon's father abandons him at a young age; his mother, Julia (Christine Kavanagh), attempts to start a new family without young John; and he must bear the temperament of an aunt who wants to rein in his troublesome ways.

Julia Lennon gives in to her son and buy him his first guitar, which leads to the creation of the Quarrymen, the first incarnation of the Beatles. The group moves through Liverpool clubs, eventually making its way to the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany.

Record-store owner Brian Epstein (Jamie Glover) takes a shine to the young men and becomes their manager. He carefully cultivates their image to marketing tastes — an idea taken to the extreme by many present-day boy bands.

Before the Beatles become big, though, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (Lee Williams) leaves the group and dies a year later from a brain hemorrhage, and drummer Pete Best is replaced by Ringo Starr (Kristian Ealey).

The story is told very matter-of-factly, in a straight narrative that does not linger on the creative process that went into the music. Rather, it attempts to show the early influences on Mr. Lennon without showing what became of them.

For that reason alone, the film becomes a wink and a nod to fans of the Fab Four but meaningless to casual listeners.

Unfortunately for this film biography, many of the more interesting aspects of Mr. Lennon's life took place after the Beatles hit it big, when the band began experimenting with its musical style, its lyrics and its members' lifestyles. What seems lacking is how the rebellious, slick-haired young Mr. Lennon went from teen-age punk to long-haired, poetic pacifist.

The origins of the words for "Eleanor Rigby," "Penny Lane," "Julia" and "Mother" are all explored, but the creation of these songs — outside the film's time period — is not shown.

Not even the heavily autobiographical song that gives the film its title, "In My Life," makes the cut, as it was released a year past the film's end date, in 1965.

The film does do an admirable job of trying to re-create Mr. Lennon's early childhood, shooting on location in Liverpool and using an almost entirely British cast, many of whose members were born in town. The strong northern English accents at times will confuse U.S. viewers, as will some of the slang, but the authenticity is admirable.

The casting is surprisingly true to form, as well, though the band appears more to be rough copies of the real Beatles than actors trying to take on their form. Two standouts are Daniel McGowan as the wide-eyed, innocent Paul McCartney and Mr. Glover as the Beatles' manager.

Mr. McGowan is the closest in appearance to the man he's playing, and he does a fantastic job portraying Mr. McCartney's calm voice of reason against Mr. Lennon's chaos.

Missing, though, is how the McCartney-Lennon duo bonded and created the hit music for which they are so well-known. Telling the story of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to Rolling Stone magazine, Mr. McCartney said he often sat face to face with Mr. Lennon at the piano. One would come up with a few lines, and the other would finish the song. Their work often mixed so much that they would forget who came up with what, Mr. McCartney said.

These kinds of details would have added much to the film, especially as the issue of who was the real driving force in the band remains a fierce debate among fans.

Michael O'Hara's script and David Carson's direction give a very accurate portrait of Mr. Lennon's young life without answering one of the central questions raised: Where did his genius come from?

Oddly enough for a film devoted to the creation of music, the movie also features only a few original Beatles songs. The rest are either traditional or covers.

"In My Life" essentially tells of the Beatles' early days and tries to draw its picture of Mr. Lennon without connecting the dots in between.

{*}{*}1/2WHAT: "In His Life: The John Lennon Story"WHERE: WRC (Channel 4) and WBAL (Channel 11)WHEN: 9 p.m. tomorrow

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