Appellate Judge Tom Becker is Reviewing for Peace.
Our review of LENNONYC (Blu-ray), published January 20th, 2011, is also available.
Well, here we are again, just two average people strolling through the park.
John Lennon in the '70s—and in New York.
Michael Epstein's LENNONYC documents the singer/writer/activist's life from the time he and his wife, Yoko Ono, moved to Greenwich Village in 1971 to his murder in 1980. Produced for the PBS series American Masters, this is a well-made film that's more intimate than revelatory, a worthy entry in the seemingly endless flow of Lennonobelia that's been circulating to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the former Beatle's birth and the 30th anniversary of his death.
The documentary follows a three act structure, with Act I taking place shortly after Lennon and Ono arrive in New York. They are a "golden couple," and their theatrical political activism—such as the famous "Bed in for Peace"—was a natural match with U.S. activists like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Lennon and Ono's activism made them targets of the Nixon administration, and they lived for years under threat of deportation by the Immigration and Naturalization Services.
Act II of LENNONYC focuses on the period when Lennon was out of NYC. The night of the 1972 presidential election, when Richard Nixon swamped George McGovern, Lennon and Ono attended a party at Rubin's to watch the election returns. By the time they arrived, the race had already been decided. Lennon—drunk and angry over the voting—hooked up with a woman, loudly making love in the bedroom while Ono stood, embarrassed, in the living room. After this, Yoko sent him away, and Lennon moved to Los Angeles and—with Ono's blessing—began a relationship with May Pang, his former assistant. During this separation—which he referred to as his "Lost Weekend"—Lennon released the albums Mind Games and Walls and Bridges.
Although Pang offers a brief interview here, her relationship with Lennon during this period is given surprisingly short shrift—well, maybe not so surprising, given Ono's involvement with LENNONYC. The credits include this line: "With deepest gratitude and appreciation to Yoko Ono, without whom this film would not have been possible."
In Act III, Lennon returns to New York, reuniting with Ono at an Elton John concert at Madison Square Garden when the former Beatle joined the pop singer for an historic duet of "Whatever Gets You Through the Night." After this, Lennon stayed in NY, becoming a househusband after Ono gave birth to their son, Sean, in 1975. Sean was born on October 9, his father's birthday, and the same day that the INS dropped its deportation action against John. Of course, toward the end of this Act, Lennon and Ono go back to the studio to record Double Fantasy and plan for a world tour in 1981. As the world already knows, these plans ended prematurely on December 8, 1980, when Lennon was gunned down by psychopath Mark David Chapman.
The story is put together with home videos, archival footage (including some nice concert footage), audio (and some video) of Lennon's recording sessions, as well as TV and radio interviews, and commentary from people who were with him at the time, including members of Elephant's Memory, the band he played with, such as Earl Slick and Andy Newmark; producer Jack Douglas; activist Tom Hayden; photographer Bob Gruen; filmmaker Jonas Mekas; and Ono. The film is anecdote-heavy and offers a lot of insight into Lennon's life and creative process. Since this is an Ono-approved project, Lennon's music is featured throughout, which is a definite plus, and the wealth of previously unseen visuals, including personal photos and home movies, is impressive.
On the downside, it portrays the relationship between Lennon and Ono in an extremely flattering, and perhaps over-idealized, light. The lack of any real critical commentary on one of the most intriguing personal/artistic relationships of the 20th Century makes LENNONYC a tad too gauzy, more puffy than it needs to be, keeping it a rung or two below "essential viewing." For all the different voices that the film offers, it would have been cool to have had a little range of perspective.
Tech-wise, we get a decent picture, considering the variety of source material. Audio is excellent, with a choice of 5.1 or stereo tracks, both doing the job well. There are no extras to be had.
A well-made documentary on an iconic figure, LENNONYC might not dig deeply enough into all aspects of its subject, but it does offer an interesting, moving portrait of the artist in what would unexpectedly be his final years. The tonal homogeny makes this more placating than penetrating, and in the end, I was less interested in learning more about Lennon than I was in digging out my copies of Mind Games, Double Fantasy, and even Ono's post-John catharsis, Season of Glass.
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