“I get guys who know the exact type of guitar string, the tie pin he wore and what colour brothel creepers he had,” the young actor says, adding that “all of those things have been positive.” Also positive, although a little more nerve-wracking, were the reactions of Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono.
McCartney, Johnson says, “thought it was great. The only thing he said was that he couldn’t remember John ever punching him in the face. But that is something you would want to forget; your band mate punching you in the face.”
The toughest critic of all, Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono lent a hand to filmmakers early on when she granted the right to use the song Mother over the closing credits. “Yoko has been a huge supporter of this film,” says Johnson. “She says if you want to understand John even more, and see what pain he put away this is the untold story.”
The film, which examines Lennon’s relationship with his estranged mother and his Aunt Mimi, will be released in Canada on October 15, just a few days after what would have been Lennon’s seventieth birthday.
“We did it as accurately as we could,” says Johnson, “but with the characters we didn’t want to make it impersonations. We just wanted to embody the spirit and the soul of these people. We were lucky because this is the only part of his life that wasn’t documented so we had a bit of freedom to make a natural and instinctive film.”
Johnson says he approached the role as a Lennon outsider. Although the Beatles “are kind of embedded in my British history,” he wasn’t a Lennon obsessive when he signed on.
“I’m not from the generation,” says the actor who was 18 when he made the film, “which was kind of a big thing for me, playing Lennon, because I wasn’t a fanatic or anything. I could look outside the box and look in, observe and analyze and not feel so attached. It was a bit easier for me to perform it, I suppose.”
In the beginning he approached the project as simply a coming-of-age story, but came closer to Lennon as the first day of shooting approached.
“I couldn’t play guitar and didn’t know if I could sing or anything,” he says. “I was willing to give it a shot, but the producers were like, ‘No, no we’ll just dub your voice and we’ll cut to someone strumming the guitar.’ I said, ‘We’ve got a couple of months, let me at least try.’ They kind of batted me away and I think that made me more determined to show them that I could do it. I can’t play John Lennon and not be able to play guitar or sing. I had a blast doing it and in the end I got to sing and perform on songs.
“It was a big thing for me to learn more about Lennon as well because his inspirations became my inspirations. Watching Elvis and watching Buddy; looking at how they moved and how they held a guitar and how they sang. That added another whole level of insight for me into the character.”
He now counts himself among Lennon’s fans, singling out In Spite of All the Danger as his favorite Lennon tune. “It’s one of the first ones he ever wrote and recorded and it is the song I perform in the film. It’s quite a personal one to me.”