The Killing Of John Lennon

The Killing of John Lennon (2006)

The Killing of John Lennon first published by Film4

Summary: For his third feature, British bio director Andrew Piddington takes on the simultaneous fall and rise of John Lennon’s murderer, Mark David Chapman. Newcomer Jonas Ball stars.

Review: Every age has had its deranged killers, and every deranged killer reflects his age. Mark David Chapman is no exception: the sort of narcissistic sociopath who might have emerged in any era, but whose murderous urges found a means of expression that was all new. Chapman, you see, was the first celebrity stalker, wilfully trying to secure his own phoney place in history by slaying somebody altogether better known and better loved than himself. 

That is why, even though every frame of Andrew Piddington’s docudrama The Killing of John Lennon is as obsessively focussed on the personality of Chapman as Chapman was himself, it is not his own name which appears in the film’s title. For Chapman’s fame was in parasitic dependence on the greater fame of his iconic victim, or, as Chapman himself put it, “I was Mr Nobody till I killed the biggest somebody on earth.” Piddington’s film reconstructs the three months leading up to his murder of Lennon in December of 1980 – when Chapman suddenly became a somebody – and the subsequent media furore, which Chapman manipulated like a PR pro.

It is difficult to dramatise true crime without drifting perilously close to exploitation or sensationalism – as the makers of the Channel 4 documentary I Killed John Lennon (2005) were to discover when the Lennon estate accused them of glorifying the musician’s murderer. Although Piddington sought permission neither from the ex-Beatle’s ex-wife Yoko Ono nor from Chapman himself to make The Killing of John Lennon, the filmmaker has two weapons in his armoury that serve to shield him from such criticisms: a painstaking fidelity to the facts of the case; and a careful organisation of those facts to demolish any sympathy that one might feel for Chapman or his self-appointed ‘mission’. 

Based on four years of rigorous research by Piddington, almost every scene in The Killing of John Lennon has been filmed at the actual locations where the events that it portrays occurred. Similarly, the words that make up Chapman’s voice-over are all his own, taken from interviews, testimonies and diary entries in the public domain, while the dialogue of other characters has also been written up from direct testimony. Yet for all this authenticity, The Killing of John Lennon could hardly be called artless or unmediated. A range of alienation effects – slow motion, pixellation, jump cuts, montages, fantasy sequences – has been deployed to convey Chapman’s fractured subjectivity, while his voice-over commentary has been edited so as to maximise, to grimly ironic effect, the jarring contradictions in his world view. 

In one scene, Chapman (Jonas Ball) is shown in Honolulu remonstrating with a Scientologist on the grounds that “a science fiction writer is not a God” – in the next, he is adopting J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel Catcher in the Rye as his own personal bible. Now he is begging his wife Gloria (Mie Omori) to understand him, now he is telling his mother (Krisha Fairchild) to stop trying to understand him. After the murder he insists on taking personal responsibility for his actions, while equally blaming his upbringing, destiny, Satan and Lennon himself for what has happened. And despite claiming that the whole purpose of his life was directed towards killing the “giant phoney” Lennon, it transpires that Chapman had a back-up list of alternative celebrity targets in case his attempt on the singer failed. 

The picture that emerges is of an isolated, angry, impotent individual with malicious intent, acute media savvy and a canny knack for self-invention. Identifying closely and self-consciously not only with Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976), but also with Lennon himself, Chapman is determined to become the very thing that he so wishes to destroy. Piddington pulls off a delicate balancing act, presenting Chapman as an explosive byproduct of our celebrity-obsessed times, while resisting the temptation to validate Chapman’s own elaborate self-mythologising. It makes for an engrossing, if difficult, study of a very modern pathology – and it also introduces viewers to Jonas Bell, a remarkably intense young actor who, though as anonymous as Chapman before The Killing of John Lennon, now seems destined (and with altogether better reason) for newfound public recognition. 

Verdict: Compelling, confronting and brutally honest, The Killing of John Lennon offers a portrait of a madman for our own age of celebrity.  

© Anton Bitel