'LennonNYC' Finds It Easy Living With Eyes Closed

by Benjamin Aspray

6 October 2010

Michael Epstein's newest entry to PBS's American Masters series looks great, sounds better, and offers very little we didn't already know about John Lennon -- and glosses over a lot that we do.


Director: Michael Epstein
Cast: John Lennon, Yoko Ono

US theatrical: 22 Nov 2010

One of the throwaway graphical flourishes of Michael Epstein’s LennonNYC, which premiered at the New York Film Festival this weekend, encapsulates the tone of the piece more than any of its assorted sound bites, news footage, or endless parade of archived photographs. During the many segments recounting John Lennon’s recording studio sessions, black and white sketch lines scribble themselves over candid images, following features of faces, needles of meters, microphone stands, guitar strings, outlines of hands, contours of music stands. They evoke a whimsical teenager doodling over pages of Teen Beat: her idle tracing is a crude paean to the stars and starlets she so admires. LennonNYC is a work of nostalgic devotion in the very same, criminally respectful mode. I ended up wishing it were more like this imagined girl’s brother, stealing her mags to draw mustaches and penises all over it.

Not that I wanted to see the doc gossip away Lennon’s dignity, but it would be nice to hear a little bit about how this Beatle wasn’t great. His somewhat well-known relationship with May Pang, which lasted a year-and-a-half or so after he and Yoko Ono separated—his so-called “Lost Weekend”—is sublimated to the point of teasing ambiguity. You’d think it was simply a matter of courtesy to his survivors, mainly Ono—who was, incidentally, present at the screening I attended at the Lincoln Center’s Starr Theater. When Epstein’s narrative reaches this chapter, though, she seems on the verge of mentioning the affair by name. So much so, that I conclude she did, only to be silenced in the editing process.
The film treats Lennon’s assassination the same way, implying it via police sirens and suggestive headlines, but never naming the killer, the location, or even the circumstances of the death. But perhaps most glaring of all is the omission of any mention Julian Lennon, Lennon’s son from a previous marriage. Less-informed viewers could be forgiven for believing Sean (whose rearing gets, by contrast, a great deal of screen time) was Lennon’s only child.

Yet LennonNYC still manages to fill nearly two hours. Most of it depicts Lennon’s time in the studio, which is patently uninteresting. Even more so thanks to the interpolation of talking head sycophants that bloat out the proceedings. In an infuriatingly coy film, these scenes contained the greatest mystery for me: who could possibly prefer this fluff to the more personal parts of Lennon’s story?  I don’t want to see the man dragged through the mud. But he, and the people close to him, were fascinating. Ono insinuates that she not only sanctioned, but encouraged, Lennon’s extramarital fling. Isn’t that interesting?  Doesn’t that say so much about the complexity of love?  Don’t you want to know more about it?  I sure did. Besides, to speak more generally, Lennon’s humanity is what gave his music so much power—especially in the ‘70s.

Who is this made for?  I wondered. Looking around me, I saw an auditorium packed with Baby Boomers. This must be as offensively inoffensive to them as it was for me. For my generation, Lennon was a legend. For theirs, he was an icon, a present fact. (My parents still speak wistfully of the commotion after Mark David Chapman shot him near their Upper West Side apartment.)

But then one of many session musicians came onscreen. The first two hours anytime Lennon recorded, it was brilliant. After that, everyone was a little…you know…above the material. Suddenly, everyone around me was beside himself with appreciative laughter. Well, I guess that answers that question.

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