Commenter @Hologram Sam found this item on Deadline from last October, and we’ve been talking about it a little on the Jann Wenner thread, so I thought it was worthy of its own post. Apparently the project teams the director of Dallas Buyers Club, Jean-Marc Vallée, with the screenwriter behind Bohemian Rhapsody.
I don’t envy them; like the failed Broadway musical, any authorized John and Yoko movie is going to be fighting itself—Yoko will insist that only a certain story will be put forth, but that story (in addition to being oft-told) isn’t actually that interesting. John and Yoko certainly felt their early courtship was full of conflict, including with “some of their beast friends,” but most of their troubles were of their own making—drugs, picking fights with hubby’s work friends, their pissed-off ex-spouses and neglected kids—and they handled them appallingly, deciding instead to stage a series of interesting, sincere but ultimately pointless political stunts. What external obstacles did they actually have to overcome?
I can think of one, which to me is the only reason to make a John and Yoko movie: sexism and racism. John and Yoko’s early years were blighted by the sexism of the Beatles’ circle (and the world in general), and by the anti-Japanese racism she suffered from fans. I am not a fan of John and Yoko’s self-mythologizing—I think it is so at variance with the truth as to be a manipulation—but if their myth gives heart to others facing this stuff, then it’s well worth putting up with another version of the Ballad of John and Yoko.
In addition to all the documentaries, and I can think of at least three (Imagine, The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, and Above Us Only Sky), there was 1985 made-for-TV movie John and Yoko: A Love Story. This has, I think, crossed over from fan-service into propaganda.
But for what? Will the new biopic talk about the things we endlessly chew over here on Dullblog? Will it show Yoko encouraging John to take heroin, or the pair of them zonked out for days not bathing, watching TV? Will Julian even appear? Or Kyoko? Will it show John’s alarming mental instability in the middle of 1968, his pointless viciousness towards his bandmates, or his disastrous friendship with Allan Klein (a friendship encouraged by Yoko)? Will it show Yoko speaking for John in meetings, ordering the other Beatles around in the studio, or John so dependent on Yoko that he demands that she accompany him into the bathroom? These lowlights were not all of the relationship; but we know we’ll be treated to the highlights, so it’s fair to ask.
Spoiler: it won’t. Anybody who’s seen Bohemian Rhapsody—the story of an equally beloved musical icon with a relationship history as murky and complicated as John Lennon’s—can tell you that it was cartoonish in its fan service. Freddie is a snaggle-toothed cutout moved through a series of plot-points. Queen gets together in the first 15 minutes; is immediately this supergroup; shrugs off small-minded producers and A&R men; faces some adversity when Freddie starts to cruise gay bars; Freddie gets HIV in a nightmarish red-hued sequence full of extras from Tom of Finland; falls into the clutches of an Evil Gay Boyfriend who just wants to use him; but through the love of his woman, Freddie gets it together long enough to do LiveAid, be accepted by his conservative dad, and die with dignity. That movie is only watchable thanks to a marvelous performance by Rami Malek. It’s possible that this project will be equally blessed by the right casting…but I wouldn’t bet on it.
I’ve said many times that the world deserves a really good Yoko Ono biography, but that I doubt we’ll get one. She is outliving her biographers, and she’s dedicated to image control; the message discipline here is worthy of any political campaign. But as with the Peace Campaign of 1969, the problem is that once you scratch the surface, there really is no coherent message—it’s just publicity for Celebrity Couple, John and Yoko. When John was a Beatle, that was interesting; there was something fascinating and durable behind all the posturing to keep our attention. But as he aged and became to rock music what Truman Capote was to letters—a once-essential artist who became so enmeshed in his own image that his productivity sputtered and stopped—there wasn’t anything that arresting about John or Yoko, much less John and Yoko. Since Lennon’s murder, the story contains the inherent drama of looming tragedy…but even so, there isn’t enough here to carry a film—unless you get down to the real nitty-gritty. Yes, there’ll be a wife-beating scene, and probably a John-is-bi-curious one, too—but Yoko will remain through it all the long-suffering Genius Art Grandma, holding herself at arm’s length, or further if possible. And that’s a shame because her story is the one that’s yet to be told, and if we knew more about Yoko—not what she wants to show us, but the whole thing—we could connect. We could love Yoko; but she wants worship. To be honest, if I’d gotten the treatment she did in the early years, I’d probably feel the same way.
Those who are already invested in the Ballad—I’m reminded of the woman at Beatlefest who told me “they are my religion”—will be delighted by this new John and Yoko movie; but the rest of us are probably in for a rougher ride.