Jacob Latimore, Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett star in director Kasi Lemmons' seasonal drama.
On Film4: 17 Dec 11:00AM
John Lennon and Brian Epstein go on holiday to Barcelona for "four days solid relaxation", on the eve of Beatlemania. This is what might have happened
On 18 June 1963 Paul McCartney threw a party at his Auntie Gin's house in Birkenhead to celebrate his twenty-first birthday. A huge tent was erected in the garden, and the cream of Merseybeat tucked into a big cake. A splendid time was guaranteed for all. Until John Winston Lennon got drunk. Smashed on his favourite tipple of scotch and coke, he introduced wife Cynthia to everyone as his "date", and verbally assaulted her until she cried.
Next up for punishment was the Cavern's diminutive disc jockey Bob Wooler. "How was the honeymoon, John?" Wooler sweetly insinuated, referring to Lennon's and his friend and manager Brian Epstein's recent holiday in Barcelona. It took three men to pull Lennon off him, but not before he'd broken Wooler's nose, three ribs, and collarbone with a shovel. "He called me bloody queer," shrugged John.
Everyone knew Brian was gay. Many were aware he was besotted with John Lennon. It's partly what made this timid, apparently clueless record shop owner snap the Beatles up. Lennon understood this, and was in turn fascinated by his urbane, intellectual equal (one of the few men to whom he'd defer), but also by his then-illegal lifestyle, and Eppy's particular predilection for rough trade.
Their decision to go on holiday together at the end of April mightn't have seemed so odd, had not the other three Beatles chosen to unwind in the Canary Islands - and had Cynthia not just given birth to Julian. "Being selfish again, aren't you!" John growled at the disbelieving Cynthia, as she lay recovering in her hospital bed. "I've been working my bloody arse off on one-night stands for months now. And anyway, Brian wants me to go, and I owe it to the poor guy. Who else does he have to go away with?"
Speculation varies as to the extent of John and Brian's emotionally sado-masochistic relationship and exactly what they got up to down on the Costa Brava. Peter Brown's and Steven Gaines's account, as relayed in the candid memoir 'The Love You Make: An Insider's Story Of The Beatles', reads like something out of Mills and Boon. ("John lay there, tentative and still, and Brian fulfilled the fantasies he was so sure would bring him contentment, only to awake the next morning as hollow as before.")
In 'In My Life', Pete Shotton recalls his lifelong friend admitting, "Eppy just kept on and on at me, until one night I finally just pulled me trousers down and said to him, 'Oh, for Christ's sake, Brian, just stick it up me fucking arse'". Brian had averred, "So I let him toss me off. What's a wank between friends anyway?" The late Albert Goldman reported Lennon told Allen Klein that it was he who "jerked Brian off, because I had to control the man who had control over our lives and careers." Yet Epstein informed Peter Brown he had sucked John off himself. Such are the dimly recalled forensics of one-night stands.
One-man indie band, the Californian Christopher Münch, who wrote, filmed, directed and produced The Hours And The Times, isn't so much concerned about who-did-what-to-whom-with-what-and-when - or even if a 'when' happened at all. The producers take pains to preface their film with a caveat in gutlessly large type: "We make no representation that any such events as are depicted in the film ever occurred."
In any case, aside from two fairly ambiguous scenes, one in which the pair self-consciously kiss in a bath, and another in which Epstein is shown waking up beside Lennon, they never do cum together. Rather, Münch is more concerned with the universal, oscillating dynamic between any and all such master-and-servants; each role readily reversible, each party locked in a power struggle through which no one will emerge victor. 'Love', or something like it.
Often lumped in with the 'New Queer Cinema' (those movies dating from the early 1990s indie circuit dealing unapologetically, even aggressively, with transgressive sexuality), this 60 minute, no-budget, starkly monochromatic chamber piece shot in eight days, doesn't have all that much in common with the sub-genre; it's a true original, rightly revered since release. While it might be seen as a dress rehearsal for Ian Hart, who went on to reprise and expand his role as Lennon in Iain Softley's Backbeat (1994), the two films couldn't be more different; an edgy, claustrophobic, 'Norwegian Wood' to Backbeat's frenetic, gleaming 'Help'.
Perversely, The Hours And The Times is one of the very best Beatles-related pictures ever made in which the 'Fabs' or their music never get a look in. "You're not allowed to think about them," reiterates Brian. Instead, here is Bach's 'Goldberg Variations', Catalan folk music, flamenco guitar, a wail of John's harmonica, and a healing burst of Little Richard. Two phone calls from the outside world, one from Epstein's mother Queenie, the other, a stilted chat with Cynthia underscoring John's mixed feelings for his wife, remind us of the lives they've temporarily misplaced.
The wistful horn from a Liverpool tug boat and an aerial view of the depressed Northern city opens the movie and sets the tone; from here, we're swiftly transported to an altogether more sumptuous Barcelona and the Avenida Palace hotel, where the Beatles once stayed in 1965. En route Brian (Angus) orders brandies, John, his beloved scotch and cokes (attention to detail is important to Münch), while flirting with air hostess Marianne (Pack). "She's just a bird, birds are harmless," John reassures a doubtful Epstein, flexing his new-found star appeal. "Otherwise we're liable to drive each other mad... left to our own devices."
He'll continue to tease and harangue his apologetic would-be seducer throughout, exploring the boundaries of their friendship in a dialogue-driven film punctuated with reflective, if booming silences. 'Real life' rarely intrudes on their hotel room, or the few exterior locations the film employs, forcing the viewer directly into their predicament. "How can you relax when some bloke's about to ram his pecker up you?" leers Lennon, a raging bull to Epstein's picador. "I look into his eyes" replies Epstein evenly. "I find you an engaging and remarkable man, Brian," John stresses. "I've never met a man like you. But I don't want to have it off with you." "But you've never ruled it out," states Brian flatly, in a voice beaded with icicles, aching to be blowtorched off.
This is a fantastic script, a verbal chess match (or squash game, given Hart's typically combative delivery) driven by incredible - and incredibly nuanced performances. As Lennon, Hart is extraordinary: the spit of the man, in likeness, accent and essence (at least, his received persona) - a seething mass of insecurities, brittle bravado, boundless curiosity, wit and intelligence with, as Münch puts it, "a hunger for experience".
Angus is almost as good as his unhappy and pill-popping, yet calculating manager, occasionally employing self-pity as emotional blackmail - or seen venting his frustrations to a bellhop who he knows can't understand English. "The little beggar will love the bastard too," he frets of Julien. "Sometimes I hate John so much I want to die." And yet it's by no means a one-note performance. There's a quiet fierceness there too (befitting a man who once controlled the biggest group in the world), as in his vocal loathing of a gay, anti-Semite they encounter; Epstein was a victim of prejudice, twice-over.
Following his hastily aborted bathtub kiss, John takes his own anxieties out on visiting air hostess and proto-feminist Marianne, who gives as good as she receives. "What if I said if I wanted to lick your cunt?" punches John. "I might, or might not, let you," she coolly replies; their encounter climaxing not in sex but a dance to Little Richard's 'I'm In Love Again'. It's one of the few carefree moments in a film filled with choppy undercurrents, sadness and longing.
The other, infinitely more poignant moment, occurs at the end, as the pair sit on a park bench, making a pact that they will return to Barcelona in 10 years time. As John was to sing the following year, during a song augmented by flamenco flourishes, "You know, if you break my heart I'll go, but I'll be back again".
It would never happen: Epstein died in 1967 from an overdose of barbiturates, just one month before male homosexuality was decriminalised. Lennon, we know about. In the promotion of this film, and generally, rather too much has been made of the pair's class differences, as if to emphasise their insurmountable 'love across the tracks'. In truth, Lennon, was raised middle-class (at least lower-middle-class), and enjoyed typically middle-class pursuits throughout his life, from art school to liberal politics, 'happenings', primal screaming and brown rice. When he sung 'Working Class Hero', he wasn't preening, but yearning.
As highlighted here, Brian Epstein, manager, friend, confidante, father-figure (and perhaps sometime-lover), had more in common with John Lennon than one would imagine; it's almost a shame they didn't get it on. After this, their lives would never be the same again. These were their hours and times: remember them this way.
A modest masterpiece, The Hours And The Times remains one of the best Beatles films the Fab Four never made.
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