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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Charles Bramesco

‘What drives a man to do this?’: re-examining the murder of John Lennon

close up of John Lennon
John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial. Photograph: Courtesy of Apple

The production company 72 Films specializes in what the executive producer Rob Coldstream calls “box set” documentaries, “archive deep-dives into compelling figures, events or moments in history that also say something about the world”. They have tackled such enigmas as Donald Trump, Elon Musk and Bashar al-Assad, but their latest project – John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial, a three-part miniseries streaming on Apple TV – presented an unfamiliar challenge in its seeming straightforwardness.

There are no big question marks hanging over the assassination of the former Beatle and counterculture icon by Mark David Chapman: plenty of eyewitnesses watched it play out in front of the Dakota apartments, Chapman was immediately apprehended, and his guilty plea stuck him with a 20-to-life sentence at the Green Haven correctional facility, where he remains today. The co-directors Coldstream and Nick Holt reasoned that they would break new ground on the subject by privileging depth over breadth, inspecting the known components of an infamous case more closely than anyone had before with help from those embedded in the situation.

“It seemed to us that lots of people had made shows about aspects of John’s death and Mark David Chapman,” Coldstream says from his London offices. “But nobody had really put it all together in a way that felt definitive and comprehensive, walking you through the whole thing without having an agenda. We didn’t want to do the sensational true-crime approach or make it into entertainment. We just wanted to lay it out. Then, once we started looking at the gaps between what has and hasn’t been told, it was obvious that there was a lot of evidence and discussion and argument around Chapman and his mental state that was never really heard. So we started to research this, and found a few people out there who hadn’t previously spoken about it.”

Rather than pondering one of the most heavily analyzed public figures of the 20th century, the three installments shift focus from Lennon to construct an exhaustively detailed profile of Chapman, whose inscrutable motivations confounded and fascinated Coldstream. Over several years of research and two spent in production, their team consulted the legal representation on both sides, the investigators, the psychiatrists and a handful of on-site civilians to make sense of a tragedy that still feels senseless to legions of fans. Lennon’s vocal advocacy for peace adds another layer of bitter bafflement to the act of violence that ended his life, an unknowability that Coldstream seized as his starting point.

“The tension in the story was in trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle to figure out what was happening in Chapman’s mind,” Coldstream explains. “We wanted to lay out the facts from the prosecution and the defense, without dramatizing it. It doesn’t need to be mysterious. Everyone knew Chapman killed him. The questions were: what drives a man to do this, and how is the justice system to deal with him?”

In the wake of the fateful shooting in 1980, everyone wanted to gain some deeper understanding along these lines, and they laid out an angry-young-man narrative to serve the same explanatory purpose as a creation myth. Chapman’s oft-cited obsession with The Catcher in the Rye cast him as a self-styled Holden Caulfield, alienated by the hypocrisy of the “phoney” Lennon calling on the people of the world to imagine no possessions while he enjoyed fabulous wealth in his own life. Delusional and disturbed, he was ill-equipped to process the moral disappointments of the adult world, and he could only exorcise his torment by inflicting it on as many others as possible. (That’s certainly how Jared Leto played it in the dramatization Chapter 27, which Coldstream looked into and found “actually quite good”.)

Through cold calls and old-fashioned shoe-leather research, Coldstream was able to locate figures with more intimate insights into Chapman’s psychology, key among them lawyer the David Suggs. He attempted to steer his client toward an insanity defense as the last hope of avoiding jail time, a course of action Chapman seemed ready to pursue before unexpectedly changing course to a confession of full lucidity and acceptance of his sentence.

Suggs speculates on the meaning of culpability and remorse to Chapman, two concepts thrown into sharper relief by one of the character witnesses that Suggs’s team tracked down all those years ago. The most illuminating perspective comes from Chapman’s childhood friend Vance Hunter, who recalled the years of physical and verbal abuse Chapman suffered at the hands of his father. Hunter traces the line connecting the destabilizing effects of this emotional pressure cooker to Chapman’s future dalliances with psychedelics, born-again Christianity and, ultimately, murder.

Mark David Chapman
Mark David Chapman. Photograph: PA

“I didn’t come to this with any particular preconceptions,” Coldstream says. “I didn’t know much about [Chapman], at first. It was interesting, hearing the firsthand accounts of police, psychiatrists, and getting their reactions. But it wasn’t until we started talking to his childhood friends that he came into three dimensions as a person. We didn’t set out to make a film rehabilitating Mark David Chapman. It’s not like we believe there was a miscarriage of justice or anything. But empathy and understanding are more interesting to me. You start to see the factors involved in triggering his mental health issues.”

Even within the purview of cold hard facts, Coldstream faced some delicate decisions about how to portray a widely reviled villain. To extend sensitivity without exoneration, he presents an accumulation of viewpoints to lay out the hurt that Chapman both harbored and spread. A news clip from the scene at the Dakota catches an inconsolable fan retreating into denial, stammering that Lennon would never leave them with the quavering certainty of those awaiting Christ’s second coming. (The doc also looks into the odder outgrowths of this ardor, such as the conspiracy theories pushing the line that CIA handlers used psychotropic drugs to induce Chapman to kill.) More poignant still is the interview with Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s young son Sean, in which the fatherless child explains that he knew the fallen icon and genius simply as “Dad”.

Coldstream recognizes that “if you’re under 40, this is all ancient history,” his own kids’ knowledge of Beatle lore limited to the broad strokes. But the generation responsible for popularizing the concept of the parasocial relationship should have no trouble appreciating how, as he says, “people from all walks of life had projected their own values onto this person who’d given them something to believe in, someone who inspired them.” The series puts this idea forward as the closest it comes to an answer for its irresolvable inquiry, that Chapman’s imagined connection to Lennon made the perceived betrayal too personal to bear. Concluding with Sean’s soft-spoken grief gives Coldstream’s approach a resonant note of lamentation – neither absolving nor damning Chapman, but conveying sorrow that he had to endure all he did, and couldn’t find any other channel for his pent-up agonies.

“When you hear [Chapman] in prison trying to make sense of it all, of himself, you feel a natural inclination toward some sympathy,” Coldstream says. “At the same time, he’s done a terrible thing, and we had a responsibility to reflect that … But one of Lennon’s fans articulates really nicely how amongst all the furor around his death, his life was about peace. Forgiveness versus retribution, we know which side John would’ve been on.”

  • John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial is available on Apple TV+ on 6 December

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