A retrospective on what should have been his 80th birthday
John Lennon was rock’s first renaissance man. Of course, he was a musician and songwriter, but he was painting, drawing, and writing stories before he ever picked up a guitar. After rock ‘n’ roll came excursions into performance art, art installations, photography—and film.
Lennon’s feature film debut came in A Hard Day’s Night. He quickly grew bored with conventional filmmaking, and went in quite a different direction with the films he made with his second wife, Yoko Ono. They made art films shot in real time like Smile (50 minutes of Lennon doing just that), and also delved into social commentary, as in Rape, with its camera relentlessly following a woman without respite; the “rape” is not physical, but the constant scrutiny proves to be just as psychologically devastating.
But John Lennon and Yoko Ono also understood the power of the media, and tried to wield it to their advantage. By inviting the world’s journalists into their hotel room while on their honeymoon, they essentially invented reality TV. To accompany the release of Lennon’s Imagine and Ono’s Fly albums, they released what we’d now call a longform video (the complete film was reissued in 2018). Where might he have taken the format in the 1980s and beyond?
In honor of what would’ve been his 80th birthday on October 9, here’s a selection of John Lennon’s memorable filmic moments:
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
Andrew Sarris of The Village Voice hailed this fictionalized day in the life of The Beatles as “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals”. He was one of many critics surprised that a film ostensibly aimed at teenagers could be so clever and witty. The innovative cinema verité shooting style gave the film an additional patina of realism, and influenced how people filmed rock groups for years to come. Each Beatle got a solo scene (though they cut Paul McCartney’s; he was too self-conscious, director Richard Lester said). In Lennon’s solo spot, he faces off with a condescending older woman (Anna Quayle) who insists he must be someone famous; if only she could remember his name….
Lennon was dismissive about the Beatles’ second feature film. “It was like being a frog in a movie about clams,” he later said. “We felt like extras in our own film.” He’s not wrong; with Ringo Starr as the centerpiece, pursued by various nefarious types who want a ring stuck on his finger, the other Beatles mainly serve as satellites whizzing around the action, occasionally pausing to make a deadpan observation.
But the film’s comic book, pop art look parodied the style of the latest James Bond films, and presaged the stylized camp of TV’s Batman. Lennon referred to the Help! era as his “fat Elvis” period, saying of his cinematic alter ego, “He—I—is very fat, very insecure, and he’s completely lost in himself.” He also said that the title song itself was a cry for help, the message obscured by the uptempo music. But he nonetheless acquits himself nicely in the film, with his casually sardonic delivery.
How I Won the War (1967)
A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester was so impressed by Lennon’s acting chops that he later cast him in this anti-war feature. The absurdist plot has Michael Crawford as the comically inept Lieutenant Earnest Goodbody, charged with having his regiment build a cricket pitch behind enemy lines in Africa during World War II; Lennon has a secondary role as Musketeer Gripweed.
The film fails as satire because of its slow pacing, and it fared poorly on its initial release (Roger Ebert, in his 1968 review, called it “a film almost contemptuously indifferent to its audience”). But given what was to come, Lennon’s death scene is particularly eerie. The film’s greater impact at the time was that it allowed Lennon to leave his “Beatle John” look behind, as he kept the short haircut and wire frame glasses his character wore, sparking off a craze for such eyewear. And while filming in Almeria, Spain, he wrote his classic song “Strawberry Fields Forever” during his off hours.
Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
This improvisational made-for-TV film was McCartney’s concept, to get the group moving again following the death of their manager, Brian Epstein. “[Paul] came and showed me what his idea was for Magical Mystery Tour… and he said, ‘Here’s the segment, you write a little piece for that,’” Lennon later remembered. “And I thought, ‘Fuckin’ hell, I’ve never made a film, what’s he mean?’” He eventually came up with a surreal dream sequence, casting himself as a smarmy waiter, shoveling pasta onto an unhappy woman’s plate. Even better, he contributed the dark psychedelic masterpiece, “I Am the Walrus.”
The Ballad of John and Yoko (1969)
The video for the Beatles’ June 1969 single essentially functioned as a newsreel about the recent activities of Lennon and his new wife (their wedding, their honeymoon and first “bed in”), or, as they came to be called, JohnAndYoko. The footage of the Beatles comes from the Let It Be filming in January 1969; the only Beatles who appear on the actual “Ballad” single are Lennon and McCartney.
Facing off with Gloria Emerson (1969)
Lennon and Ono’s peace campaign often baffled the public. Bed Ins? Planting acorns for peace? What did that really accomplish? Lennon reasoned that since the media covered everything he did anyway, why not turn these encounters into “commercials” for peace? One critic who took exception to such tactics was New York Times reporter/author Gloria Emerson, who interviewed Lennon and Ono at the Beatles’ posh Apple Corps offices on London’s tony Savile Row. You could later see excerpts of their combative argument in documentaries like Imagine: John Lennon.
Let It Be (1970)
Lennon called the film shoot for what became the Let It Be film and album “the most miserable session on earth.” Filmmaker Peter Jackson, charged with doing a re-edit of the film, due for release next year, begs to differ, saying in a statement, “The reality is very different to the myth … Sure, there’s moments of drama—but none of the discord this project has long been associated with.”
There’s likely truth to both perspectives. But what’s striking about the original Let It Be cut is how, aside from McCartney, the rest of the band seems to be desultorily going through the motions. “I just didn’t give a shit,” Lennon later told Rolling Stone, “nobody did.” But even he seemed to be enjoying himself when the group took to the roof of their Apple Corps office for an impromptu concert that turned out to be their last public performance.
Instant Karma (1970)
Freshly shorn to greet the new decade, Lennon and Ono appeared on UK music show Top of the Pops on February 11, 1970, to promote Lennon’s third solo single, recorded just 15 days before. Lennon sang a live vocal to a backing tape, with the musicians miming their instruments; Ono added a performance art touch, sitting blindfolded and holding up signs reading “Smile” and “Peace” (during a second take, she knitted throughout). It’s an exuberant performance of a song that became Lennon’s first solo Top 5 hit in the US.
Today we best know “Imagine” for its presentation of the title song, an elegant sequence that shows Lennon playing a white piano in an all-white room in his Ascot, England, mansion, as Ono opens the shutters, letting the room fill with light. It’s also the most conventional sequence, the only time Lennon or Ono mime singing to one of their songs.
The rest of the film is more free form, showing the couple at their English home, or wandering around New York City. “We’re just making it up as we go along,” Lennon said at the time, stressing there would be no scenes of the couple in the recording studio, a la Let It Be, as that approach was “boring.” Though of course the couple’s recording sessions were filmed at the time as well, the footage later released in the documentaries Gimme Some Truth (2000) and Above Us Only Sky (2019).
“One to One” concerts (1972)
Lennon made few concert appearances post-Beatles. His last complete shows were two charity concerts held on August 30, 1972, at Madison Square Garden. With the backing of New York boogie band Elephant’s Memory, Lennon and Ono performed a selection of the solo material, with a nod to Lennon’s Beatles past (“Come Together”) and his rock ‘n’ roll roots (“Hound Dog”). The afternoon show was released on video and LP in 1986 as John Lennon Live In New York, and fans have been patiently waiting for a DVD/Blu-ray release of both shows ever since.
Salute to Sir Lew: The Master Showman (1975)
John Lennon didn’t appear on this show, which he taped on April 18, 1975, and aired in June, because he was a fan of Sir Lew Grade, a media mogul who just happened to own the Lennon/McCartney songwriting catalogue. The two had been involved in a legal dispute, ultimately settled, and Lennon’s appearance was part of the deal. Lennon glides onstage in a red jumpsuit, performs two songs from his recent Rock ‘n’ Roll album, “Slippin’ and Slidin’” and “Stand By Me” (the latter not broadcast), then serves up what was already his signature song, “Imagine.”
The backing band (including Vinny Appice, later of Black Sabbath) wore facemasks on the back of their heads, “a sardonic reference to my feelings on Lew Grade’s personality,” Lennon explained. Or maybe not; Mark Rivera, another band member, said they were Ono’s idea, “to show the duality of American society.” The canned applause adds to the surreal mood. This was Lennon’s last-ever public performance.
“Walking on Thin Ice” (1981)
On November 26, 1980, John Lennon and Yoko Ono filmed the sex scenes that would later appear in the “Thin Ice” video, when Ono released the single the next year. The video mixes together home movie footage of the couple with poignant shots of a solitary Ono walking around New York City. It was the last film work Lennon ever did. Lennon played a searing guitar line on the song, and the couple was working on the track the night he was murdered, December 8, 1980. Ono’s eerily prescient lyrics perfectly summarize the story of JohnAndYoko: “I may cry someday/but the tears will dry whichever way/And when our hearts return to ashes/it’ll be just a story.”