The West

All you need is love for the Beatles
Family United. Picture: Supplied

Music fans who came of age in the late 1960s probably spent a good deal of their youth in front of the stereo reading and re-reading the lyrics of Beatles songs, which by that stage of their unparalleled career were routinely included in the packaging of their albums.

Indeed, as the Fab Four moved into their psychedelic phase even fans with the sharpest ears needed to double check the exact wording of I Am A Walrus, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and, the biggest head-scratcher of all, Come Together.

If we found it hard to imagine what non-English Beatles fans made of phrases such as "sitting on a cornflake", "where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies" and "joo-joo eyeballs". They must have had fun with misheard lyrics in places such as Lisbon, Rome and Budapest.

According to the wonderful fact-based comedy Living is Easy With Eyes Closed, which is taken from Strawberry Fields Forever, we were able to fully savour the words of Beatles songs because a Spanish school teacher visited Lennon and asked him fill in the blanks of his incomplete set of lyrics.

Early in the movie we see Beatle-obsessive Antonio (played by Javier Camara of Talk to Her fame) teaching his students English by using the words to Beatles songs. The problem is that Antonio's transcriptions are full of blank spaces because they are made from shonky recordings taken off Radio Luxembourg.

So when Antonio hears that Lennon is in Almeria in the south of Spain playing a small part in the movie How I Won the War he embarks on a journey to meet the Beatle and ask him to correct the lyrics of the songs so he can teach the children accurately.

Along the way Antonio picks up a couple of youngsters, an unmarried pregnant teen who has fled an institution that will remove her child (the Spanish version of the Philomena story) and a teenaged boy who has been ostracised by his father for his Beatles haircut.

These parallel narratives bring into focus the repressiveness of Spain during the Franco years that was poisoning the soul of the nation; a place where people survived by living with their eyes closed (to paraphrase Lennon) to the iniquities around them. Amusingly, we never hear a Beatles song because any time a radio is turned on it is playing some kind of religious program.

Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed is based on the true story of Juan Carron Ganan, who is now 88 years old, still teaching English and, most crucially, still in possession of the notebook into which Lennon wrote the correct versions of the lyrics.

"I read the story in a paper in 2006. They were celebrating 40 years of Lennon being in Almeria, and I read about this teacher who made this trip and asked Lennon to make corrections in his notebook," the film's director David Trueba told Britain's Independent newspaper.

"When they met, the teacher gave him the notebook and Lennon corrected the lyrics and filled in the gaps. He also corrected songs written by Paul McCartney and George Harrison - Eleanor Rigby and Taxman."

"The funny thing is that Lennon used colours when correcting the lyrics. For Yellow Submarine he used a yellow pen, and if he wrote the word 'green' he would use a green pen. You only have to look at the way he did the corrections and you think this guy must have been funny."

According to an endnote on the film it was after the meeting with Ganan that the Beatles began the practice of including lyrics to their songs in all their albums. There is no proof that the teacher's plea led to the practice but it's a lovely story and I choose to believe it.

What we do know is that during his time in Spain that Lennon began writing Strawberry Fields Forever, one of his most cherished songs. He said that the villa in which he was staying reminded of the garden of a Salvation Army children's home named Strawberry Fields close to his childhood home in Liverpool, a pop music history footnote that Trueba plays with beautifully in the movie.

Lennon only had a small role in How I Won the War which was directed by Richard Lester, the British-based American director who had made the two Beatles films A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965) and helped usher in the vibrant pop sensibility to British cinema

However, Lennon's presence in the movie was big news at the time - it was his only non-musical role in a movie - and his image on posters was its big selling point. Even today his face looms large on the DVD.

It was also during the making of How I Won the War that the myopic Lennon first wore the round National Health-style spectacles that would become his signature.

While the part was small, Lennon had told the press at the time that it might lead to a change in career. The Beatles had just completed a sell-out tour of American and he was unhappy and was considering becoming a full-time actor (this is covered in the black-and-white news footage at the beginning of Trueba's movie).

However, it seems the tedium of making How I Won the War got to Lennon. "He wasn't unhappy, he was bored," recalls Lester. "There is always boredom on set but when we did the first two films together there were four of them and they could form a defensive manoeuvre against the rest of the world, which was fine."

Lester is less convinced about the film's assertion that Lennon was seriously considering an acting career.

"In Germany, before we even came to Spain, we shot his death scene. I said to him 'You know, John, if you really wanted to do this, you could probably be a really decent actor', and he said 'Yeah, but it's f…ing silly isn't it?' That took care of that."

Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed is the highlight of this year's Spanish Film Festival which has its usual range of vibrant and sexy comedies, dark dramas and, increasingly, envelope-pushing genre pieces, such as the hilarious Witching and Bitching, about a gang of jewellery thieves who find themselves in the clutch of a coven of witches.

These two movies were the big winners at the recent Goyas, Spain's version of the Oscars, and also in the mix were Cannibal, a chilling thriller about a serial killer preying on Eastern European women without papers, and Family United, a delightful rom-com set during a wedding on the day that Spain won the World Cup in South Africa.

The Spanish Film Festival is on at Cinema Paradiso from May 6-21.

The West Australian

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