The curse of being enthralled with your destination

Non-marketing weekend post:

Watching a made-for-tv Lennon biopic, and thinking about what makes it… not exactly bad, but neither blessed with the type of greatness that gets you much bigger than a street corner preacher, let alone a messiah. I think part of it is that it’s burdened burdened by hindsight.

It’s not that the writers and actors knew what was going to happen – biopics, unlike thrillers, generally don’t have their action driven by tight plotting and unforeseen twists. Even if they tried, the audience usually starts out knowing too much about how it ends anyway.  No, the problem was that they started out knowing what it all means. They knew that the band will become huge, that swarms of girls will swoon, that the four young guys will have their lives permanently enmeshed, and become a musical touchstone for the next 2 or 3 generations (my sister-in-law recently saw a reality singing show in the US which featured a Beatles week in which the teen / twenty-something contestants protested that they’d never heard the songs before. Maybe their revolutionary newness is starting to reach a final destination of ancient lost classic status).

This knowledge of the story’s meaning can be a gift in the right hands, deftly used to sprinkle sparkle into the action. In the hands of a merely competent writer it can start to choke the life out of its subjects. A young John is seen performing  skiffle music with some friends at a village fair, and a bunch of girls dance to the music as if profoundly moved. The writers, the actors, the audience all know that John Lennon is a great musician, and these random bystanders are treating him that way, even though he’s still only learning the guitar at this point in the story. Paul sees John for the first time and seems awestruck. Maybe that happened, maybe it didn’t, but we all know what happens to John, so it seems like hindsight is driving the reaction more than the young lad who is hammering out the rudiments of his craft. George Harrison is introduced, and John immediately gives him a hard time, but only for the minute it takes to establish his character as dominant and snarky, not for enough time to generate any real disquiet. We see a promoter persuading a reluctant John to ditch an early band member who isn’t a good enough musician. John digs in his heels – but only long enough to establish his bona fides as someone who sticks up with friends, not so long as to play out any real interpersonal awkwardness or tension.

The strongest reactions to a film like this are going to come from the bond the audience forms with a charismatic figure undergoing and overcoming travails. The writers do their best to carve a psychological reality from the fixed series of real life events, but they are hindered by their tendency to get sucked into  rushing towards what the lead character’s life will ultimately mean. Great art leads to unexpected truth. This art is merely good.

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