The Killing of John Lennon
Written and Directed by Andrew Piddington
Starring Jonas Ball
Let’s get this out of the way right now for the legions of Beatles fans who believe that this movie should never have been made. These fans, as I understand it, are outraged not only that the movie exists, but that it’s being shown at film festivals and that it’s been getting glowing reviews since it premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival last August.
The Killing of John Lennon, which made its U.S. debut this week at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, is not meant to please Beatlemaniacs. It’s not meant to be in “good taste.” It’s not even meant to be entertainment in the traditional sense of the word. It is, rather, a difficult, disturbing, and at times nauseating movie to watch, even if you never cared about the Beatles or Lennon, even if you weren’t yet born on December 8, 1980, and even if you have little sense of who Mark David Chapman—played with chilling accuracy by Jonas Ball—was, what he did, and why he did it.
Why did Chapman do it? Because he was an emotionally disturbed and probably insane individual. He wanted to steal Lennon’s fame, his identity. He saw himself as the reincarnation of Holden Caulfield, the hypocrisy-hating narrator of J.D. Salinger’s classic novel of disaffected youth, The Catcher in the Rye. Chapman thought Lennon was a phony who deserved to die for misleading a generation. And, as I said in my own John Lennon biography Nowhere Man, he thought that if he killed Lennon, he’d write Chapter 27 of Catcher in Lennon’s blood—Catcher ends on Chapter 26—and literally disappear into the pages of the book.
Most of this is very well explained in the movie.
But let me make one other thing really clear, too: Writer/director Andrew Piddington has chosen to show the act of murder in graphic slow motion. Chapman’s five bullets, fired at close range, are seen tearing apart Lennon’s flesh amidst a shower of blood, in the archway of the Dakota, as the ex-Beatle and his wife, Yoko Ono, are returning from a recording session.
So what is this filmmaker up to? Piddington has said that he wants his movie to generate “controversy, adverse criticism, and scorn.” Well, that may be his marketing plan, so to speak. But he’s also said that it was his intention to put on-screen an unflinching presentation of the truth as seen through Chapman’s eyes, as he goes from his dead-end job as a security guard in Hawaii to the aftermath of the murder and his solitary confinement in Attica. Piddington accomplishes this by basing his impressionistic and at times surreal screenplay on the murderer’s journals, statements he made to the police and psychiatrists, interviews, depositions, and court transcripts. The director says that there’s nothing in the script that he didn’t corroborate three times.
That’s an almost impossible standard to employ for any work of journalism, especially for a documentary-like feature film shot on a miniscule budget of $500,000. But it perhaps explains why a number of well-known events and crucial bits of information are missing from the movie. They include:
- Chapman’s belief that his head and the walls of his room are populated by a civilization he calls the “little people.”
- Chapman, on his flight to New York from Georgia, sees Lennon on the cover of the November 1980 Esquire magazine, and after reading the article describing the ex-Beatle as little more than a rich businessman, becomes even more enraged by Lennon’s “phoniness.”
- Chapman meets John’s son Sean and his governess in front of the Dakota.
- Chapman, in his hotel, reads the January 1981 Playboy interview with Lennon and learns that sometimes he hires fans off the street to work for him.
- Chapman asks Lennon for a job as Lennon autographs his record album.
- Chapman, on the morning of the murder, sees Mia Farrow walk in front of the Dakota and takes that as yet another sign that he should kill Lennon. (Farrow played Rosemary, who gives birth to the devil in the Dakota, in the film Rosemary’s Baby.)
The Killing of John Lennon, shot on location in New York, Honolulu, and Decatur, Georgia, is a minor miracle of genuine independent/guerrilla filmmaking and should be commended as such. It couldn’t have been easy for Piddington to shoot in front of the Dakota, and that’s undoubtedly why many scenes that in real life took place on the sidewalk directly in front of the building were staged down the block or across the street. And, presumably, it was beyond the limits of Piddington’s budget to shoot the crowds of Lennon fans that haunted the Dakota daily, their numbers swelling after Lennon released Double Fantasy, the album that marked his return to the public eye after five years of seclusion.
And even with its numerous anachronisms—the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, modern subway turnstiles, and the occasional 21st century car—the film doesn’t look cheap; it looks real, and real scary. If anything, The Killing of John Lennon serves as an illustration of the problems associated with low-budget filmmaking and how they can be creatively overcome by a determined and talented filmmaker.
The Killing of John Lennon is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival on Fri., May 4, 5:30 PM, at the Pace University Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts (3 Spruce Street between Park Row and Gold Street). This review, as well as reviews of other films from the festival, can be found at The Looseleaf Report.