New Video // 2010 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // January 20th, 2011
"Well we did the Staten Island ferry/
Making movies for the telly/
Played the Fillmore and Apollo for freedom/
Tried to shake our image/
Just a cycling through the village/
But found that we had left it back in London"
-- from "New York City"
For fans of ex-Beatle John Lennon, 2010 was a big year -- marking both what would have been his 70th birthday, and the 30th anniversary of his tragic death. His life and accomplishments were celebrated through remastered releases of his solo albums and a pair of films about the final decade or so of Lennon's life. The first, Lennon Naked (which I also reviewed) is a melodramatic mess of a BBC biopic that I awarded a Friday Filibuster "Buster" as the worst DVD of the year. The other, LENNONYC, is a documentary about the nine years John spent in America. Is it any better?
Yes. Lots. Although LENNONYC (which hits Blu-ray a few weeks too late to be part of the 2010 celebration) isn't the hardest-hitting dissection of John and Yoko's post-Beatle life, it tells a gripping story, filled with triumph and heartbreak. Written and directed by Michael Epstein, LENNONYC combines personal photos, home movies, and original music recordings with interview segments featuring the friends and family who knew John best during the 1970s.
John and Yoko left England in 1971, fed up with a British press that wouldn't leave them alone. John felt that Ono, in particular, had been unfairly maligned and abused, with one publication going so far as to call her "ugly" in print. They were looking for peace, and found it in New York. In England, John couldn't go out in public without being mobbed; in America, he was free to come and go as he pleased. The freedom that New York afforded the couple reinvigorated them. It allowed John and Yoko to pursue their passions, recording new music with local band Elephant's Memory, and continuing their fight for peace and justice.
American activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin approached Lennon, looking for a famous face to bolster the flagging anti-war movement. John took full advantage of his notoriety to bring about change. Some efforts were successful, like Lennon's performance at a massive rally in support of the unjustly jailed John Sinclair that led to his release. Others, like the protest songs in the hastily recorded and released album Some Time in New York City -- fell flat. The biggest project for peace came in the form of a tour that doubled as a push to register young people for the 1972 election -- the first in which 18-year-olds would be allowed to vote. The goal: to help George McGovern defeat the incumbent Richard Nixon. The plan got the nervous attention of the White House and the FBI. Nixon, along with Strom Thurmond, began the process of deporting Lennon, kicking off a legal battle that lasted until 1976.
In the midst of the surveillance, Nixon's victory, and trouble at home, Lennon and Ono separated. John moved to L.A. with his assistant, May Pang, and spent 18 months drinking heavily and making trouble. This "lost weekend" lasted until a newly sober Lennon returned to New York and made up with Yoko. Reunited, the couple gave birth to their first and only child, Sean, and Lennon went into semi-retirement to raise his son. It was a happy time for John, during which he and Yoko wrote the songs that became Double Fantasy. The album was released in November of 1980, with plans for a world tour early in 1981. Tragically, a psychopath named Mark David Chapman put an end to those plans on Dec. 8, 1980, in the entryway of the Dakota hotel. Lennon was shot in the back and died on the way to the hospital, leaving behind a wife, their son, and a musical legacy that still resonates three decades later.
LENNONYC isn't the story of a Beatle. It's the story of a musician, husband, and father -- a flawed artist searching for love. Having long ago come to the conclusion that John Lennon was just an egotistical brute, this documentary went a long way towards changing my mind. Even though Epstein sticks to the Ono-approved script, we get to peek behind the curtain, into a period of Lennon's life where he was most able to be himself and not the bed-hopping Beatle who hid behind a protective mask. Lennon paid the price of being so famous so young. His scars started to heal in the final decade of his life, once he was able to step out of the harsh spotlight of Beatlemania. Not that it was a painless process. Even with the emotional safety net Yoko provided, John was prone to bouts of self-destructive behavior. The night Richard Nixon won reelection, Lennon went into a drunken freefall at a friend's house, grabbing a random girl and having loud sex with her in a bedroom while an embarrassed Ono stood in the next room. The incident was the last straw for the troubled couple, and when Yoko kicked him out, Lennon moved to L.A. and continued a downward spiral that lasted until he cleaned up and returned to New York, and to the woman he loved.
There's no doubt that John and Yoko's relationship was more complicated that shown here, but the glimpses we get of their love -- especially after Sean's birth -- go a long way towards taking Lennon from pop cultural icon to real person. LENNONYC humanizes Lennon in a way that no biography (certainly no fictionalized biopic) could. Even though we're still looking at him through Epstein and Yoko's filter, the candid photos, videos, and personal anecdotes make this the most intimate portrait yet of one of the 20th Century's most famous artists.
One of the many problems with Lennon Naked is that it featured very little of Lennon's music. LENNONYC doesn't have that problem. The soundtrack is a treasure trove of John Lennon music, from album cuts of some of his most famous songs to rare live footage, demos, and raw audio from recording sessions. The 5.1 surround mix sounds generally good, but when he music hits, it really comes alive. It's a powerful, immersive, and intimate mix that puts the viewer in the recording studio with Lennon. The audio is crucial to the film because so much of the documentary is either talking head interviews or still photography. The modern footage looks crisp on Blu-ray, though the quality of the archival material varies wildly. Very little of it benefits from being in 1080p. Lennon fans will want to spring for this release over DVD, though, not only for the presentation, but because Lennon NYC comes with a Blu-ray exclusive 20-plus minutes of additional interviews. These bonus segments cover a variety of topics, including the iconic New York City t-shirt photo shoot, Lennon's macrobiotic diet, and the bank of answering machines he set up to bypass radio censorship and let people hear his song "Woman is the Nigger of the World." The longest and best segment is about the night Lennon was shot. LENNONYC doesn't dwell on the specifics of the murder, focusing instead on the aftermath. This collection of personal recollections helps fill in the gaps in a moving way.
When someone is as famous as John Lennon is, it's easy to think you know him. But LENNONYC is an intimate look at what happened when John walked away from fame and found love and peace of mind. In the tragic end, he wasn't a Beatle, or a pop icon, or an anti-war leader. He was just "John." I'm not sure how this movie ever got paired with Lennon Naked (on PBS no less!), but let's hope they're never mentioned in the same sentence again. It might not be the film Lennon fans should watch to celebrate his career, but it's the one they should watch to celebrate his life.
Power to the people! Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Interviews
* Cinema Verdict Review