Jealous Guy: The Assassination of John Lennon review – what drives a fan to murder?

Forty years on from his death, this documentary tells the story of the Beatles star, the man who killed him for ‘self glory’, and the biographer who has followed their interlinking tales ever since

It feels as if there are a couple of competing documentaries within the feature-length Jealous Guy: The Assassination of John Lennon (Sky Documentaries). One is a straightforward, relatively familiar account of Lennon’s life story, picking up from the Beatles’ first visit to the US and following that through to his death at the age of 40, 40 years ago. The other is less developed, but far more intriguing, and centres on the journalist Jack Jones, who wrote a biography of Lennon’s killer, Mark Chapman. Why is Jones so fascinated by Chapman’s life story, and what is he looking for in his decades-long relationship with it?

I suspect that would have been a harder sell, though it certainly would have been an original take. Instead, this is a faithful, sometimes insightful, occasionally salacious recounting of how one of the most famous musicians the world had ever known came to be shot dead by Chapman in New York City in December 1980. Chapman’s life story is troubled and bleak, and the director, Bill Badgley, treads a fine and, I think, fair line when it comes to exploring the many factors that may go towards explaining how Chapman came to pull the trigger that day.

The documentary spans the mid-60s to 1980, and then follows the story of Chapman’s incarceration, up to the present moment. Using archive footage and interviews with experts, friends and acquaintances of Lennon, it pieces together the musician’s fame and notoriety, not always the same thing, and places them within their cultural context. This era offers ripe material. While it might now seem baffling that, following Lennon’s comments that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, certain parts of the US would erupt into “Beatles-burnings”, death threats, protests and riots, it does have a peculiar contemporary resonance, particularly when it comes to Lennon’s subsequent attempts to understand the controversy. If there is anyone left with a desire to immerse themselves in the quagmire of so-called cancel culture, then watch the interview Lennon gave at the time, arguing that no one can keep quiet about their opinions on something like the Vietnam war, “unless you’re a monk”. He looks at the camera and gesticulates with his hands, jokingly preempting any new offence he may have caused. “Sorry, monks, I didn’t mean it.”

Lennon’s periods of excess are documented with respect, if not quite reverence, by various academic experts, and the image of him driving around in a psychedelic Rolls-Royce while high on LSD is explained as a rock star cliche and a symptom of his disaffection, depression and rootlessness. Yoko Ono emerges from the picture well, sending him off to Los Angeles to clean himself up, so that she could work without him distracting her. In California, Lennon drinks his troubles away with Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper and Keith Moon (“that’s a tough one to keep up with,” notes the photographer Bob Gruen, wryly), until he sorts himself out, and returns to New York, sober and chastened.

Chapman’s story is interwoven with Lennon’s, and told with some understanding by Jones, who wrote the biography Let Me Take You Down with Chapman’s input and cooperation. Jones has interviewed Chapman on and off for decades, and calls Chapman’s wife, Gloria, his “dear friend”. Through his own insights and taped conversations, he pieces together a life dogged by misfortune, trauma and mental illness. When Chapman expresses what sounds like remorse – “What a horrible, horrible thing to do. I cannot believe I did that” – Jones acknowledges that Chapman regrets the killing, in so much as someone he describes as “pathologically narcissistic” is capable of feeling that way. At this stage, Jones’s interest in the story is almost more interesting than the story itself: later, he talks about why he is so keen to look at the horrible facts of why people kill others. Jones’s own experiences are, if not a plea for empathy, then an explanation as to why empathy matters, and why it so intrigues him.

This is a story about fandom, and the relationship between biographer and subject is a fascinating one. The Lennon devotees speak of their idol’s feelings as if they had been right there drinking with him; a journalist wonders how ethical it is to assist the man who admits he killed Lennon for “self-glory” to achieve that notoriety. The transactions are complicated, and this film seems to acknowledge the difficult balancing act it has to contend with, as it attempts to split itself between Chapman and Lennon accordingly. Mostly, it manages to be sensitive, though it occasionally misses the mark; the state Lennon was in when he arrived at the hospital is described in mawkish and gruesome detail. During filming, Jones is filmed talking to Chapman about the possibility of parole. A hearing is imminent. But parole was denied for the 11th time. Chapman’s release, it was declared, would be “incompatible with the welfare of society”.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Conviction: Murder at the Station review – a gripping search for truth
Did Roger Kearney really kill his lover in 2008, or is he serving a life sentence on little direct evidence? This BBC two-parter allows the viewer to judge both sides of the argument

Tim Dowling

22, Sep, 2016 @6:20 AM

Article image
Sophie: A Murder in West Cork review – sorrow, grief and a startling mystery
Netflix’s true crime investigation explores the killing of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in rural Ireland, painting a vivid picture of its subject and the wretched impact of her death

Lucy Mangan

30, Jun, 2021 @1:05 PM

Article image
The Detectives: Murder on the Streets review – the detective documentary as Manc noir
A fascinating look into the realities of a murder investigation. Plus, from Nollywood pastiche to Black History UK garage style, new sketch show Famalam

Sam Wollaston

21, Sep, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Mark Gatiss on John Minton: The Lost Man of Art review – a poignant portrait
Minton was once more famous than Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud. Now his superfan is on a mission to resurrect his reputation in this fascinating BBC Four documentary

Sam Wollaston

13, Aug, 2018 @9:00 PM

Article image
What Makes a Psychopath? review – first-hand insights, but too few answers
This was a responsible look at a troubling subject, even if Ian Brady’s inclusion felt like a gimmick. Plus, Celebrity Island with Bear Grylls

Lucy Mangan

30, Aug, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
What Facebook Knows About You review – start panicking now!
The BBC’s latest Panorama asks whether it’s time to regulate Mark Zuckerberg’s cultish dotcom. Plus, laddish app comedy Loaded soars when the women join in

Julia Raeside

09, May, 2017 @6:10 AM

Article image
All You Need Is Love review: a glorious reminder of how pop docs used to be
Stuffed with amazing footage, this magisterial history of pop – partly narrated by Liberace, partly written by Stephen Sondheim – got more than a little help from John Lennon’s contacts book

Phelim O'Neill

26, May, 2016 @2:19 PM

Article image
Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution with Howard Goodall review – what I knew didn’t even scratch the surface
Think you know about the Beatles’ defining album? This brilliant documentary will give you a whole new perpective. Plus: Nordic noir, Canadian-style, in Cardinal

Sam Wollaston

05, Jun, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Black and British: A Forgotten History review – this is what it means to share a heritage
From Hadrian’s Wall to Beachy Head, David Olusogo’s thought-provoking programme takes us on a timely trip back to Britain’s multicultural past

Chitra Ramaswamy

10, Nov, 2016 @7:10 AM

Article image
The Murder of Rhys Jones: Police Tapes review – a forensic examination of the efforts to catch a boy’s killer
It took eight months of painstaking work by Merseyside police to break the omerta surrounding the shooting of 11-year-old Rhys and get justice for his grieving parents, as this documentary recalls

Lucy Mangan

21, Jun, 2018 @9:00 PM