The makers of a highly entertaining new TV bio-pic, In His Life: The John Lennon Story, at 9 p.m. tomorrow on NBC, made a wise decision in casting actors who look very little like the Beatles. Instead they found talented young performers who capture the exuberance and cheeky charisma of the musicians without the distraction of being mere lookalikes.
The result is a well-acted, surprisingly honest retelling of the Beatles' beginnings, focusing on Lennon between the ages of 17 and 24. The movie chronicles his rise to stardom from his schoolboy days strumming a cheap guitar in bands called Johnny and the Moondogs and The Quarry Men to the earliest years of his collaboration with Paul McCartney (Daniel McGowan) as they slogged through gigs in divey clubs in Hamburg and Liverpool.
Lennon's troubled romance with first-wife Cynthia gets a brief going-over. He cheated on her and was out of town when son Julian was born. Music, not marriage, was his real love back then.
The movie ends with the call from Ed Sullivan inviting the Fab Four to their first appearance on American television.
Executive producer/writer John O'Hara got no cooperation from the surviving Beatles or from Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, who refused to license any musical material. So instead of Beatles tunes, O'Hara has the boys singing 16 covers of American rock and roll standards of the early '60s, including "Stand by Me" and "Roll Over Beethoven." The musical sequences are so tight and so seamlessly woven into the story line (thanks to good direction by David Carson) that the lack of Beatles music doesn't hurt the movie at all.
Actually the biggest obstacle to getting the movie made was the casting of the title role. O'Hara almost scuttled the project when he couldn't find an actor to play Lennon. After auditioning more than 300 actors and musicians in London, he finally found Phillip McQuillan, an inexperienced Irish actor who bears little resemblance to Lennon but manages to convincingly portray his troubled spirit and his edgy wit. He also nails the tough Liverpudlian accent.
Shot entirely in Liverpool, the TV-flick includes scenes inside Lennon's actual childhood home on Penny Lane, where he was reared by his Aunt Mimi (beautifully portrayed by American actress Blair Brown), and at the cemetery where the real Eleanor Rigby is buried.
The airing of In His Life this weekend coincides with the 20th anniversary of Lennon's death.