Page last updated at 09:55 GMT, Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Don't Let Me Down: rise of the rock biopics

by Kev Geoghegan
BBC News reporter

Chris Eccleston as John Lennon
Eccleston famously played the Doctor prior to David Tennant

Lennon Naked will be the second film of the past 12 months to tackle the subject of one of British music's most enduring and enigmatic icons - John Lennon.

Nowhere Boy, the debut feature by artist Sam Taylor-Wood, portrayed the precocious teenage Lennon before the Beatles and his complex relationship with his domineering aunt and free-spirited mother.

The new BBC film, which stars former Doctor Who actor Christopher Eccleston, shows Lennon at the opposite end of his career from 1967 to 1971, fame-weary and disillusioned with the very band that made his name.

The impact on Lennon of the death of the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein comes under the microscope as does his break-up with wife Cynthia and his meeting with Yoko Ono and the subsequent period of his life which resulted in his defining song, Imagine.

Lennon Naked has been based, in part, on an historic "jaw-droppingly open" interview that Lennon gave to Rolling Stone editor Jan Wenner in 1970. During the course of the interview, Lennon spoke at length about the break-up of his band and his fractious relationship with Paul McCartney.

"It's an extraordinarily revealing interview about Lennon's character," says Lennon Naked director Ed Coulthard.

"He's very bitchy about The Beatles, he slags people off and it's very bitter. He also says he knew he was a genius at the age of 12.

"It was that last comment that captured me, really. It got me thinking about him and that late destructive period of his life."

Fan fears

The film is set to be one of the highlights of the BBC's summer schedule and has Beatles fans salivating, if not also feeling a little apprehensive.

"Fans have an image of John and the biggest fear that any Beatles fan has, is that it doesn't capture what he was feeling at the time," says Ernie Sutton from the British Beatles Fan Club.

Life on a tourbus is all fun and singalongs (Almost Famous 2005)
The band will break-up at some point but end up realising their love for one another (This is Spinal Tap 1984)
Unsubstantiated rock legend will be portrayed as fact (The Doors 1992)
Hit songs are recorded in a single take (Notorious 2009)
You can get away with an actor miming and no-one will notice(What's Love Got To Do With It 1993)
Loutish behaviour belies hidden depths (Sid & Nancy 1986)

"If it gives the impression that John wasn't bothered about his divorce from Cynthia or the break-up of the band and loss of Brian, that would be a real let down.

"John had a caring side and was really quite thoughtful. If he comes across as just an angry person then it won't give an accurate portrayal."

But Lennon Naked, at least according to the director, is not in the classic rock biopic mould.

Rather than cramming Lennon's 40 years into a neat hour and a half, the film centres on a specific period in his life.

But does this mean the film will avoid any number of dreaded rock biopic cliches?

"I think that you've got to avoid the moments that we know about already which will just seem really corny. That's why Nowhere Boy really worked because it's his early years," says Radio 1 film reviewer James King.

Lennon Naked shows Lennon telling the assembled Beatles the band is finished, a potential narrative stumbling point which could easily veer into melodrama. But Coulthard insists he should have avoided any.

"I think the two pitfalls are that you make a hagiography, that is just a cardboard cut-out version of an artist's popular image or you choose to tell a negative story," he says.

"The best films of this kind, and what I aspire to, is something in between that has light and shade. It is three-dimensional and has some complexity to it and gets you to a deeper sense of who this person was."


Later on this year, Twilight star Kristen Stewart will be seen in the role of 70s US rocker Joan Jett in the film The Runaways.

It premiered at the recent Sundance Film Festival in the US and has garnered mixed critical reviews.

The casting of Stewart is almost certainly aimed at appealing to the teen market.

However its focus is on the 35-year-old story of a band of whom most teenagers will never have heard - a fault common to most rock biopics.

Kristen Stewart and Joan Jett
Stewart plays the teenage rock guitarist Joan Jett in The Runaways

British actor Andy Serkis is currently Bafta-nominated for taking on the colourful and controversial character of Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll.

In the past few years, the stories of Joy Division's Ian Curtis, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Notorious BIG and Bobby Darin have all made it to the screen with varied success.

There is the long-rumoured but "stuck-in-development" film on Jimi Hendrix, at one time set to star Outkast's Andre 3000 in the title role.

Even Martin Scorsese is getting in on the act with a planned film on Frank Sinatra.

Traditionally though, rock biopics have failed to set the international box office alight.

The multi award-winning Walk The Line in 2005 is by the far the most successful of recent years, making more than $186m (£118m) worldwide - making it the exception rather than the rule.

But that did not prevent a savagely funny lampooning in the comedy Walk Hard two years later.

Andy Serkis plays Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll
Serkis is Bafta-nominated for his turn as Dury

Jamie Foxx picked up an Oscar for his portrayal of Ray Charles and that film made more than $125m (£79m).

But last year's Notorious and even Oliver Stone's cult 1991 film The Doors, starring Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison, struggled to match expectations.

And despite strong reviews for his performance as Bobby Darin, Kevin Spacey's labour of love Beyond The Sea in 2004, struggled to make $10m (£6.3m).

"I know the argument that they wouldn't get made if there wasn't an appetite for them," says King.

"But looking at the box office takings for Sex & Drugs and Nowhere Boy - which have both tanked - we're not quite as interested as film-makers think we are."

Lennon Naked will be screened on BBC Four later this year.

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