‘John Lennon: Murder Without A Trial’ Recap/Review: Why Did Mark Chapman Shoot Lennon?

Here’s the thing: I have an interest in people who kill famous people. What I mean is that I am always curious about what exactly goes on inside the heads of these people, before or after committing the crime. And surely, many of you share the same area of interest as me. This essentially qualifies Apple TV’s John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial as one of the most anticipated docuseries of the year. Lennon, as we all know, was brutally shot to death by one Mark Chapman on the 8th of December 1980, outside his residence, the famous Dakota Apartments in NYC. The three-part documentary attempts to look into the nitty gritties of the fateful day, as well as the murder investigation, along with the most important aspect of the whole thing, i.e., “why did Mark Chapman do it?”

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Spoilers Ahead


A Seemingly Normal Day Until…

Randomly being gunned down at the age of only forty is already one of the saddest possible fates one could ever have, but what particularly makes the tragedy far more devastating is the fact that the former Beatle was on the verge of a comeback. He went reclusive in the mid-seventies, and for years, he stayed clear of the media. But when the eighties began, Lennon was energetic, flowing with creative juices, and about to start his new musical journey. His inspiration was his young son, Sean, who would later become a musician himself. He was not only a happy man genuinely excited about work; he spread the energy to people around him as well, including his then-wife, Japanese artist-activist Yoko Ono, and music producer Jack Douglas.

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The day was filled with productivity. Lennon sat down for an interview after so many years, and he was very enthusiastic about it. That was followed by a usual recording season, which ended with Lennon leaving the studio all happy and content, as described by Douglas, whose last image of Lennon remains the artist boarding the elevator with a smile on his face.

Sadly, though, Lennon couldn’t return to his home as, right after getting out of his limousine, Chapman shot him right outside his apartment. He still had a pulse when he was taken to the Roosevelt hospital, but it was too late and he’d suffered too much blood loss already. We get a detailed account of what exactly happened right before and after Lennon’s death from various people, who were all gracious enough to appear in front of the camera to share their accounts. Concierge Jay Hastings, who was managing the Dakota Apartments at the time, porter Joe Many, and taxi driver Richard Peterson, who just happened to be there, all shared what happened and how they reacted to what would eventually be considered as one of the most shocking crimes in history. The most shocking thing was that Chapman didn’t run away, even after shooting John Lennon. He was all quiet and calm and was reading the book in his hand, The Catcher in the Rye.

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What Happened After?

The documentary shifts the focus to Chapman from Lennon as it tries to get to the bottom of the crime Chapman committed. What shocked everyone who was involved in the high-profile case was Chapman’s behavior after doing it. Neither did the young man try to escape nor did he make any attempt to stop getting arrested. The people who were in charge of the investigation were puzzled by the attitude. Chapman didn’t have any prior criminal record either, which further confused everyone.

In the upcoming days, though, a conspiracy theory emerged that brought the FBI and CIA, as well as the US government, into the fold. There were always rumors about the government using things like hypnosis to eliminate certain people they deemed dangerous, with the CIA orchestrating it. Why was Lennon on their radar? Because of his political ideology, he openly shared how he envisioned a perfect world without any country or religious barriers. Apparently, the idea was not exactly liked by the US authorities, and they were keeping an eye on Lennon.

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However, as the trial was approaching, Chapman’s legal team was leaning into the angle of insanity. That’s the only way for the man to get out of this, which seemed like a distant dream. Chapman’s traumatic childhood and young adult years are explored through his classmate and a former girlfriend. We also get a peek at the seemingly strange relationship he shared with his wife, Gloria, where she sort of took his side. While it was anticipated that Chapman would plead innocent and the case would go to trial, the man ended up pleading guilty, which got him a life sentence. In the final moments of John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial, we see Chapman in a live interview where he is thanking the almighty and apologizing to the world for what he did. And the reason for him to do that was as bizarre as it could get—promoting the Salinger novel. What you make of that is up to you.


Final Thoughts

Documentary filmmaking is tricky and challenging, especially when the subject is as sensitive and infamous as John Lennon’s murder. But there’s also an opportunity to experiment with various kinds of treatment and tell the story to the audience in a manner that stays with them. For John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial, the director takes the rather puritan approach of infusing a lot of archive footage, recordings, and loading up the whole thing with interviews of relevant people. Unfortunately, the docuseries doesn’t take us anywhere interesting. 

I agree that the fundamental task of a documentary is to present an incident exactly as it happened to the audience, and this one does succeed in that. It is thoroughly researched; everything is told in minute detail, and I can only imagine the amount of effort Apple TV has put into bringing in all the people and compiling the interviews for the sake of a cohesive narrative. But the problem lies in the fact that the storytelling here is very much like a true crime podcast, where you expect to find out about the motive behind the crime. Other than Chapman’s claim that he was lost and that, in the end, he found God, which made him accept what he did, you don’t get anything. I am not saying it was mandatory, but the experience of watching the whole thing over the course of three episodes becomes quite exhausting even before we reach the halfway mark.

The ex-Beatle’s murder laid the foundation of the documentary, but the majority of the focus was actually on Chapman, which only proves my point further. I applaud the director for not fabricating anything and telling the world exactly how things went down, but what are we going to do with that information after all these years? Especially when most of what we see on screen can be explored in detail if you take a stroll on the internet. In this day and age, when documentary filmmaking is breaking new ground every day with unconventional approaches and bold storytelling, mainly thanks to Netflix, John Lennon: Murder Without a Trial falls rather flat, which is almost as sad as the abrupt ending of the legendary musician’s life.

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Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra Majumdar
Rohitavra likes to talk about movies, music, photography, food, and football. He has a government job to get by, but all those other things are what keep him going.

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