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”.