A surprising charmer of a telepic, NBC’s “In His Life: The John Lennon Story” is easily the best of the year’s Beatles-based made-fors, following the middling “Linda McCartney Story” on CBS and “The Two of Us” on VH1. Focusing on seven years in Lennon’s life, from the time he bought his first guitar to the Fab Four’s triumphant arrival in America, “In His Life” covers territory less familiar to audiences. The film largely eschews the usual sentimentality of such dramatic re-enactments, thanks in large measure to a spirited perf by Irish newcomer Phillip McQuillan. But what really sets this pic apart and will make it a fave with avid fans is the authenticity of the location shooting in Liverpool, including the house where John grew up.
While the settings are limited — this is still a television movie after all, with a small visual scale — they lend an air of reality that gives the story an unpretentious quality. The actors portraying the future Beatles don’t walk around with the mark of important artistes branded into the performances. Instead, these are youngsters, lead by the “cheeky” John, out to have a good time and make a buck doing it. They are Liverpudlians who revolutionized the world by accident, not by design.
Pic begins with a contemporary scene in which Lennon’s first guitar is auctioned for $225,000, then flashes back to begin its tale, nicely establishing the link with Lennon’s humble beginnings — the guitar cost about $10 in 1957.
Teenager John, obsessed with Elvis, convinces his mum Julia (Christine Kavanagh) to buy him that guitar after his stern Aunt Mimi (Blair Brown), who raised John from the time he was three, refused. As he’s learning to play and forming his first band, meeting the more advanced musicians Paul (Daniel McGowan) and George (Mark Rice-Oxley) along the way, he gets kicked out of school and sent to art college, where he meets close pal Stuart Sutcliffe (Lee Williams). All the sidekicks here are well cast.
After a few events of personal import — John meets and marries girlfriend Cynthia when she gets pregnant, his mother Julia dies — the boys are off to Hamburg.
There they retrace, with less detail and less existential pretense, the period covered by indie film “Backbeat.” Back in England, they become the toast of Liverpool and are spotted by Brian Epstein, who replaces drummer Pete Best (Scot Williams) with Ringo (Kristian Ealey) and begins managing their rowdy personalities as well as their marketing.
After a fateful rejection at Decca records, the Beatles soon find themselves bigger than you-know-who and, in a nicely realized scene, John returns home to the usually disapproving Aunt Mimi in a limo, flocked by fans.
Teleplay, by exec producer Michael O’Hara, is like a “Best Of” compilation, a well-selected anthology of the most notable moments in Lennon’s early adulthood with an added flashback to a defining moment when, as a toddler, he had to choose between his mother and father.
By necessity, the script is heavy on the exposition, and the dialogue sometimes feels highly contrived. David Carson’s direction, though, is exceedingly crafty. The beat rings true with only a couple of exceptions — when John finds out about Stuart’s death, and when he and Brian get into a tiff — with McQuillan always opting for the dry approach.
There’s not a lot of depth to the relationships, but there’s not a lot of cringe-inducing melodrama either. And John’s not treated with fawning respect — his less-than-admirable treatment of Cynthia is not sugar-coated.
Throughout the film, O’Hara and Carson lace references to Lennon’s later songs; we see the gates to the real Strawberry Fields, for example, and the gravestone of Eleanor Rigby.
The music consists of rock classics and traditional tunes, every one of which the Beatles actually covered. Solid cinematography and editing help capture the energy and fun of the early Beatles performances.