Graham Reid | | 3 min read
When, at the end of 1966, John Lennon was going spare after a US tour where he was lambasted for his “Beatles more popular than Jesus” remarks, he took up the offer from Dick Lester – who had directed A Hard Day's Night and Help – to join the cast of a film he was shooting in southern Spain.
Lennon, as we now know, was increasingly unhappy in his marriage . . . and although he would later bring his wife Cynthia and son Julian out for the shooting, he would first encounter Yoko Ono just weeks after the shooting ended.
About being asked Lester he admitted later, “I was flattered at being asked. The ego needed feeding with the Beatles being at a kind of crossroads”.
Lennon cut his hair and wore the National Health glasses which he would adopt thereafter, and seemed to enjoy his time on the set.
“The harmonica was with him throughout the filming,” said Lester, with whom Lennon played cricket.
The anti-war theme of the film How I Won the War also appealed to him.
But for the Beatle-obsessed world he left behind, the questions were being asked: Was this the beginning of the end of the Beatles? (They never played live again, until that famous rooftop concert).
Fans and the media fed the speculation.
That interesting period is the setting for the film Living is Easy With Eyes Closed by Spanish director Trueba who tells the story of a Spanish schoolteacher and Lennon fan who – on learning his idol is in his country – decides to make the journey south to see him.
We first encounter fiftysomething teacher Antonio (Javier Cámara) – after a faux-newsreel period clip about Lennon going to Spain – teaching his class the lyrics of Help! but also asking his young charges just why this wealthy man might be crying out in such a way.
He knows the answer himself: the prison of fame, the need to be normal, the yearning for genuine companionship . . .
“These are life saving songs,” he says later when talking about teaching kids. I Want to Hold Your Hand is about something important: “To know someone before you felt what you are feeling at this moment. You are no longer alone.”
Has the power of a simple pop song been so distilled?
And then he adds: “We all need to shout sometimes in life 'Help'. Like John'.”
The irregular verbs will come later.
But Lennon and the Beatles – their songs never played on the soundtrack – are not what this lovely film is about.
This is a road trip in a battered Fiat through repressive Franco-era Spain where our gentle if determined teacher picks up a young pregnant woman Belén (Natalia de Molina) who is 20 years old, single and pregnant, and heading home to face her mother in a Catholic country where abortion is not available and shame will haunt her.
Their companion is a young boy Juanjo (Francesc Colomer), a 16-year-old with Beatle-like longer hair in the fashion of his British pop star idols who runs away from home where his police officer father nags him about getting a haircut.
These uncommon friendships -- through layers of politics and family stories, small asides and telling glances – are gently revealed. There are wry and sometimes regional jokes and humor, simple gestures of generosity in the context of oppression where the radio plays Catholic propaganda.
There is also along the way brutishness, poverty of body and spirit, and memorable characters with stories of their own. Small kindnesses seem big in this world which is beautifully shot so even the arid landscape around Almeria – where spaghetti westerns are also filmed – looks enticing if unforgiving.
If there's a subtext it's that the Beatles liberated human feelings through their presence as much as they did through their music in Franco's Spain: “Too many people live in fear in Spain” says Antonio, a simple but telling observation.
Living is Easy With Eyes Closed – the Lennon lyric heavy with meaning in this socio-political context – is a very human story full of funny but effortless pop culture references (Bond films, unintentionally getting stoned) and Spanish politics of the era.
The clue is in the title: It is about that yearning for genuine companionship . . . as too in “Help, I need somebody . . .”
A gentle, funny and serious, very sad and often elevatingly happy, and always rather beautiful film where the small scale renders its human truths so much larger.
Does he meet Lennon?
You need to watch this to find out . . . but the journey is as important as the destination.
Maybe it is 10 minutes too long, but they are very nice minutes.
And at times in a movie which could have been shot through with cynicism – and sometimes alludes to that –this is very close to a tear-jerker in its simple if sentimental truths about occasional love and honest connections.
And, against the odds in that era, about family.
There's isn't a Lennon song on the soundtrack, because it is never really about him, until . . .
Living is Easy With Eyes Closed : Winner – six Spanish Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Cámara), Best New Actress (de Molina), Best Screenplay and Best Original Score (Pat Metheny)
Official Selection (Spain) – 2015 Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film
Director David Trueba discusses this film here.