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Can Either Brian Epstein Biopic Eclipse “The Hours and Times”?

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It emerged yesterday that a second new film is to be made about the Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who died of an accidental overdose at the age of 32 in 1967.

Paul McGuigan, announced the Hollywood Reporter, will direct his “Sherlock” star Benedict Cumberbatch as Epstein in a biopic that will focus on Epstein’s private life, presumably dealing with his struggles as a gay, Jewish man living in the bigoted English society of the fifties and early sixties. Todd Graff (“Camp,” “Bandslam,” “Joyful Noise”) will write the screenplay for Tom Hanks’s company Playtone.

It was previously announced at New York Comic Con in October that Broadway producer Vivek J.  Tiwary would adapt his and artist Andrew Robinson’s upcoming graphic novel “The Fifth Beatle” (M. Press Books, 2013) – about Epstein, not original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe or original drummer Pete Best – into a film. He has acquired the rights to the Beatles’ songs, a first for a movie project.

These films will potentially direct some attention to two previous works. One is the 1998 two-parter “The Brian Epstein Story,” a 90-minute oral history documentary made for the BBC series Arena that was directed by Anthony Wall and turned into an indispensable book by Debbie Geller. In an Interview magazine column on the project Greil Marcus described Epstein as “this beautiful man,” a reference less to his cherubic looks, perhaps, than his spirit as the kind, generous, gentle man who willed the Beatles into pop music’s greatest force.

Then there is Christopher Münch’s 1991 “The Hours and Times,” a philosophical piece that speculates what passed between Epstein (David Angus) and John Lennon (Ian Hart) when they took a 12-day vacation in Barcelona in late April 1963, three weeks after Cynthia Lennon had given birth to Julian. Epstein was probably in love with Lennon, a sardonic agent provocateur equally fascinated and repulsed by having sex with a man.

You can read blunt testimony (including Lennon’s) of what may have happened between the Beatle and his boss here, though Münch’s delicate and circumspect account contains the seeds of a more enduring and poetic truth about unrequited love suffered by…anyone.

As I noted in an essay on Münch in “Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood” (SUNY, 2008), he took the film’s title from Shakespeare’s 57th Sonnet: “Being your slave, what should I do but tend/Upon the hours and times of your desire.” Brian and John kiss. John invites Brian into their hotel room bathroom where he is soaking in a tub. Brian, naked, gets into it. John gets out of it. It’s not a consummation but a dance. The film ends on a Liverpool rooftop with Brian telling John, “These times we have together are very special to me, you know that?”

I concluded: “These times, this hour – for that is the running length of ‘The Hours and Times’ – externalizes Brian’s pursuit of John, which brings him torment, but also the comfort of knowing that it was he who shared those moments with him and the intensity of a relationship that, if imperfect, was validating. Münch, who has said that he identified with Brian in the film, draws us into it with his mythic approach, but tells us a universal, empathetic story of romantic obsession.”

Accordingly, his bittersweet novella of a movie sets the upcoming Epstein biopics a challenge. Can they also capture him with such sorrowful tenderness without toppling into sentimentality, or will they add to the list of flawed Beatles films like “Backbeat” and “Nowhere Boy?”

Image: Top: David Angus (foreground) and Ian Hart in “The Hours and Times”/© Good Machine. Left: Beatles manager Brian Epstein/”The Brian Epstein Story”/Amazon.com

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