Friday, June 09, 2006

Why Don’t Those “Chapter 27” People Make a Film About John Lennon Instead of Mark David Chapman?

A scene from the disastrous Broadway musical Lennon, a Yoko Ono-authorized project that ran for a few weeks in the summer of 2005. © 2005 Joan Marcus


It’s a good question, one I’ve seen raised in numerous online forums, including IMDB. Since I seriously doubt the filmmakers will answer it before Chapter 27 is released next year (if they ever answer it), I’ll attempt to answer it myself. But before I do, I just want to say to Chapter 27’s writer/director J. P. Schaefer: Hey J. P., when you’re ready to talk, let’s do an interview for Proceso, the Mexican Time/Newsweek. In case you haven’t heard, the Mexicans think Mark David Chapman is a fascinating character—a grotesque symbol of the maddening juxtaposition of wealth/poverty/fame/anonymity/sanity/insanity in America. Yes, J. P., I think we could do quite the entrevista.

As for the question: I think that Chapter 27’s producers, Peace Arch Films, did want to make a movie about John Lennon; they probably spent a year or two trying to figure out how—only to realize that without Yoko Ono’s permission they couldn’t make the kind of “serious” film they wanted to make. Chapter 27, I suspect, is what they chose to do instead.

Other people, of course, have made unauthorized Lennon films, and some of them are quite good. The Hours and Times (1991), starring Ian Hart as Lennon, is about John’s alleged affair with the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. Backbeat (1994), again starring Hart as Lennon, is about the Beatles in Hamburg in the early 1960’s. The Two Of Us (2000), starring Jared Harris as Lennon and Aidan Quinn as Paul McCartney, is about a fictional reunion John and Paul had in New York in the mid-1970’s. But in each case the producers had to overcome seemingly insurmountable legal and creative obstacles: Because Ono controls both the rights to Lennon’s music and the screen rights to the registered trademark known as “John Lennon,” they couldn’t use music written by Lennon (or the Beatles), they couldn’t quote Lennon from published sources, and The Two Of Us, which took place during the Dakota years, couldn’t use Ono or Sean Lennon as characters.

And Ono still probably wanted to sue—because the only John Lennon story she wants told is her authorized “official” version. But Ono’s lawyers presumably told her in each case that a lawsuit was a bad idea. Not only would it bring more attention to these films, but it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove that they were taking money out of her pocket or that a reasonable person might mistake them for authorized products of the Lennon estate, thereby infringing on her Lennon trademark. (Apple Records recently sued Apple Computer in British courts for this kind of trademark infringement…and lost.)

Chapter 27, however, is a different kind of movie because the subject matter is so “controversial” and because it’s getting so much high-profile publicity. When Ono’s attorneys found out about it, they probably sent Peace Arch a letter telling them (as if they didn’t know) that Ono controls the screen rights to her own character, to Lennon, and to Sean, and they probably asked to vet both the script and the film—just to make sure that Peace Arch hadn’t infringed upon any trademarks or copyrights.

In response, I’d imagine the Peace Arch attorneys told Ono’s lawyers to chill, assuring them that nothing had been infringed, and they’d do their own vetting, thank you very much. (I also suspect that Ono’s attorneys were not at all happy when they saw photos of the pseudo-Double Fantasy album cover, which could be mistaken for the real thing. They probably fired off another warning letter to Peace Arch, and it remains to be seen if the album stays in the picture.)

Well, this is all very interesting, people may say. But then they often ask: Why doesn’t Ono just give her approval to a great filmmaker, like Martin Scorsese or Robert Altman, and let him make the Lennon movie everybody wants to see—one with proper music, characters, and dialogue?

The answer is simple: Independent-minded directors of Scorsese’s or Altman’s stature would never collaborate with somebody who, like Ono, would demand complete control of the film and final approval over everything associated with it. When Ono gives permission for a Lennon project, it’s not to artists and auteurs; it’s to pliant journeymen she can bend to her will—like Don Scardino, for example, the “conceiver”/director/writer of the Broadway musical Lennon, which ran for a few weeks in the summer of 2005 and met with uniformly disastrous reviews before closing.

In a lengthy critique of Lennon I wrote for Proceso (available en español as an e-document on Amazon, or for a few pesos less from Proceso), I said that the primary problem with the play was that it never took you into John’s world; you never believed for a second that what you were seeing onstage was an accurate representation of his life; and that Lennon himself never came alive—partly because nine different actors, men and women of various ages and ethnic backgrounds, took turns playing him, with one serving as the “main” narrating Lennon. (Ono has said that no single actor is capable of playing Lennon.)

In the article, I also contrasted Scardino’s experience putting together Lennon with my own experience, in 1981, collaborating with Lennon’s former personal assistant, Fred Seaman, on what was supposed to be an authorized Lennon biography based on John’s diaries—a project that 19 years later became the very unauthorized Nowhere Man. I think the following excerpts will help explain why Peace Arch chose to make Chapter 27 rather than a Lennon biopic:

Scardino, [probably best known for directing a few episodes of Law and Order and the Cosby show], has said that he didn’t want Lennon to be a “whitewash” but was uneasy about including any material that portrayed John in a negative light. He’s also said that Ono insisted that he keep a scene where John humiliates her at a party, loudly making love to a girl in the next room. Though the scene does remain, it’s neutered. There’d be no way to know what was going on if “narrating John” didn’t tell you.

Which raises a ticklish question: Is everybody who collaborates with Yoko Ono on any Lennon project reduced to being a propagandist? I’m not sure. But I can say this much: Every day [as I struggled to put together the authorized Lennon bio], Seaman and I confronted the same two questions: Is there anything we can write that Ono will approve? Is there any way to please “Mother”? The problem was that every time Seaman spoke to Ono, he divined different answers.

“Write something that makes Yoko look like a star in her own right…and write it fast,” he’d tell me Monday. Then Tuesday he’d say, “Don’t use any words at all; it has to be a picture book.”

Our discussions left me creatively paralyzed, and I suspect that it was a similar kind of fear and confusion that drove Scardino to rely completely on Lennon’s previously published words, to write virtually no original material, and to reduce John’s last five years to little more than the official myth: “I was taking care of the baby.”

At the least, Ono should have insisted that Scardino show Lennon’s dramatic struggle in Bermuda, in the spring and summer of 1980, to write the music for his final album, Double Fantasy—show a creative giant awakening from a five-year slumber to recapture his muse. Instead, for reasons I do not pretend to understand, it was airbrushed out—along with his mistress, May Pang, his son Julian, tarot, magic, astrology, numerology, servants, money, marijuana, and his diary.


Assuming the copyright laws (which Congress, pressured by well-funded Disney lobbyists, recently revised to keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain), aren’t changed yet again, John Lennon and his creative output will begin to pass into the public domain in 2055. Until then, all we can do is take what we get and hope for the best. Chapter 27 is hardly the last word. There are a lot of independent-minded and fiercely creative people who will not rest until they find innovative and “legal” ways to tell the John Lennon story that they want to tell, that John would have wanted told, and that deserves to be told in our lifetime.