A look back at what would have been his 80th birthday if he hadn’t died.
In music, John Lennon was the first renaissance man. In addition to his musical talents, he also excelled as an artist and storyteller, all of which he pursued long before he ever picked up a guitar. Art installations, performance art, photography—and film—followed rock ‘n’ roll’s departure.
John Lennon made his feature film debut in A Hard Day’s Night, which was released in 1963. He rapidly became dissatisfied with the traditional methods of filmmaking, and the films he made with his second wife, Yoko Ono, took an entirely new course. You may see Lennon performing live in real time for 50 minutes in Smile, and you can see social commentary in Rape, where the camera follows a lady nonstop for the whole movie. The “rape” isn’t physical, but the persistent inspection has a psychologically devastating effect on the female subject.
But John Lennon and Yoko Ono were also aware of the power of the media and tried to use it in their favor. It was effectively the beginning of reality television when they invited the world’s media into the hotel room of their honeymoon suite. On the heels of the release of Lennon and Ono’s albums Imagine and Fly, they launched a long-form video (the complete film was reissued in 2018). If he’d continued in this vein, where do you think the format would be today?
As a tribute to what would’ve been John Lennon’s 80th birthday on October 9, here are some of his most remembered film clips:
1. A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
The Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris called this “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals,” praising this fictitious day in the life of The Beatles. A film geared towards teens was astonished at how brilliant and witty this one was, according to one critic. It was a pioneering cinema verité filming technique that shaped the way rock bands were filmed for years to come. All four members of the Beatles had a solo scene (excluding Paul McCartney, who director Richard Lester believed was too self-conscious). Anna Quayle plays Anna Quayle, a condescending older woman who believes Lennon must be famous if only she could remember his name….
2. Help (1965)
The Beatles’ second feature film was derided by John Lennon. He subsequently remarked, “It was like being a frog in a movie about clams.”. It was as though we were extras in our own movie. While Ringo Starr serves as the center of attention, being followed by various sinister characters who want to put a ring on his finger, the other Beatles serve primarily as satellites, zipping about the action and occasionally halting to deliver a deadpan observation.
Comic book and pop art influences in this film ridiculed the current Bond flicks, but also foreshadowed television’s take on Batman in its exaggerated kitsch. At the time, John Lennon called the Help! period the “fat Elvis” phase because he described the character he played in the movie as “extremely fat, very insecure,” and “totally lost in himself.” Also, he claimed that the title song was a plea for help, but that the uptempo music masked the message. However, he does a good job in the picture with his casual sarcasm.
3. How I Won the War (1967)
Lennon’s performance in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night made an impression on the filmmaker, who went on to use him in his anti-war film, Imagine. Michael Crawford portrays Lieutenant Earnest Goodbody, who is tasked with constructing a cricket pitch behind enemy lines in Africa during World War II; John Lennon plays Musketeer Gripweed, a subordinate character in the absurdist plot.
This is a bad parody because of the slow pace and terrible reception it had on its initial release (Roger Ebert, calling it “a picture almost contemptuously oblivious to its audience”). However, in light of what was to follow, the dying scene of John Lennon is particularly unnerving. As a result of the film, John Lennon was able to shed his “Beatle John” persona while keeping the short hairstyle and wire-frame glasses he sported in the movie. He also penned “Strawberry Fields Forever” in Almeria, Spain, while filming there.
4. Magical Mystery Tour (1967)
McCartney came up with the idea for an impromptu made-for-TV movie to get the band back on track after the loss of manager Brian Epstein. A few days later, [Paul] came to present me his concept for the Magical Mystery Tour… the part was given to him and Lennon was asked to compose an individual tune for it, “Let me know how it goes,” the Beatles subsequently recalled. ‘Fuckin’ hell, I’ve never made a film, what’s he mean?’ I thought to myself. It wasn’t long until he came up with a strange dream sequence, in which he saw himself serving pasta to an unhappy woman. To top it off, he created the dark and surreal psychedelic classic “I Am the Walrus.”
5. The Ballad of John and Yoko (1969)
For the most part, the Beatles’ June 1969 single video served as a newsreel chronicling the recent activities of John and Yoko Ono, the couple he married in December 1968 and with whom he had a child the following year. Only Lennon and McCartney feature on the actual “Ballad” single, which was shot during the January 1969 Let It Be shoot.
6. Facing off with Gloria Emerson (1969)
The public was often perplexed by Lennon and Ono’s peace effort. How about a night in a hotel room? To promote peace, why not plant acorns? What was the point of doing that? Why not use these interactions as “commercials” for peace if the media was already covering them? The New York Times writer and author Gloria Emerson, who met Lennon and Ono at the Beatles’ plush Apple Corps offices on London’s tony Savile Row, was one critic who took issue with such tactics. In later documentaries like Imagine: John Lennon, you can witness snippets of their heated debate.
7. Let It Be (1970)
Lennon referred to the Let It Be film and album shoot as “the most terrible session on earth” throughout the filming. The film’s reediting task falls to director Peter Jackson, who says in a statement, “The truth is considerably different from the myth… However, there are moments of drama, but none of the strife connected with this enterprise.”
Both points of view are likely to be correct in the end. Despite this, the original Let It Be cut is notable for its sluggishness in comparison to the rest of the band. Later, Lennon told Rolling Stone, “I just didn’t give a crap; nobody did.” He seemed to be having a good time when the band climbed to the roof of their Apple Corps headquarters for an impromptu concert that turned out to be their final public performance. ‘
8. Instant Karma (1970)
To promote his third solo song, which had been recorded only 15 days prior, Lennon and Ono appeared on UK music show Top of the Pop on February 11, 1970, with their hair freshly shaved to welcome the new decade. Ono added a performance art element by sitting blindfolded and holding up signs reading “Smile” and “Peace” as Lennon performed live over a backing tape (during a second take, she knitted throughout). Exuberantly performed, this song was Lennon’s first solo US number one.
9. Imagine (1971)
In today’s world, “Imagine” is best known for its presentation of the title song, an exquisite scene showing Lennon playing a white piano while Ono opens the shutters and allows the room to fill with natural light, as the song is sung. The only time Lennon or Ono mime singing to one of their own songs, this is also the most traditional sequence.
Most of the rest of the film takes place in the couple’s English house or in New York City on their own. In an interview at the time, John Lennon claimed, “We’re just making it up as we go along,” underlining that there would be no sequences of the pair in the studio, as such method was “boring.” Of course, they were also shot at the time of their recording sessions, but they were released in the documentaries Gimme Some Truth (2000) and Above Us Only Sky (2001) (2019).
10. Salute to Sir Lew: The Master Showman (1975)
Sir Lew Grade, a media mogul who happened to own the Lennon/McCartney songwriting library, was a fan of John Lennon, who did not appear on this show, which he taped on April 18, 1975, and aired in June. Lennon’s participation was part of a settlement agreement between the two parties. After performing “Slippin’ and Slidin'” and “Stand By Me” off his current Rock ‘n’ Roll album (the latter of which was not broadcast), Lennon returns to his hallmark tune, “Imagine.”
In a humorous reference to my opinions on Lew Grade’s personality, the supporting band (which included Vinny Appice, later of Black Sabbath) wore face masks on the back of their heads. They may have been Ono’s idea to “highlight the dichotomy of American society,” according to Mark Rivera, another band member. Adds to the bizarre feel of this performance is the synthetic applause. This was the late John Lennon’s final public appearance.
11. “Walking on Thin Ice” (1981)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono shot the sex sequences for the “Thin Ice” video on November 26, 1980. Ono released the single the next year. The video incorporates footage from the couple’s home movies as well as moving views of Ono alone in New York City. It was Lennon’s final cinematic project. On December 8, 1980, John Lennon and Yoko Ono were working on the song, when Lennon played a savage guitar line. For John and Yoko, Ono’s hauntingly prescient words perfectly sum up their story: It’s only a story until our hearts are reduced to ashes. “I may cry someday, but the tears will dry no matter which way I look at them.”
12. “One to One” concerts (1972)
After the Beatles broke up, Lennon only made a handful of solo concerts. On August 30, 1972, he performed two final acts in their entirety at Madison Square Garden for charity. Come Together” and “Hound Dog” were included in the set list for the Elephant’s Memory band’s performance alongside John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who performed a selection of their solo material. A VHS and LP release of the afternoon show, John Lennon Live In New York, was made available to fans in 1986, and they’ve been waiting impatiently for a DVD/Blu-ray release of both performances ever since.