Michael Epstein's moving documentary offers fresh insights into the lives of John Lennon.
With the arrival of each autumn, we enter the season of John Lennon. We celebrate his birth in October, mourn his passing in December, and most likely hear his Christmas song a few dozen times along the way. This past Lennon season was far more active than usual. To commemorate what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday, the marketplace was hit with a hitherto unseen deluge of Lennon product, some necessary (a sonic upgrade for his solo catalogue) and some less necessary (the questionable biopic Nowhere Boy). Arriving unassumingly in the midst of this great blizzard is Michael Epstein’s LENNONYC, an unexpectedly moving documentary that offers a revealing glimpse into Lennon’s art and personal life during his last few years.
Of course, the lack of anticipation surrounding LENNONYC is no doubt due to the fact that every aspect of Lennon’s life has been dissected time and time again in every form of media imaginable. The Beatles may not be bigger than Jesus but they’ve certainly spawned more documentaries. If Andrew Solt’s Imagine: John Lennon is still the definitive Lennon doc then LENNONYCC is an essential companion piece that brings together a refreshing cast of talking heads, several of whom who are telling their stories on camera for the first time. Working with the full cooperation of Yoko Ono, Epstein tastefully applies his archival discoveries to the Lennon iconography and completes the arduous task of offering a fresh perspective on the lives of John Lennon.
The Plastic Ono Band/Imagine era is pretty well worn territory at this point. Recognizing this, Epstein wisely opens his film in late-1971, when Lennon arrived in New York just another immigrant in search of a fresh start. The most famous rock star in the world reveled in semi-anonymous big city living; renting a tiny apartment in the West Village and walking the streets undisturbed. A man with big ideas and an even bigger platform to transmit them from, Lennon soon found himself in more trouble than he left behind in the UK.
Aligning himself with a variety of anti-establishment causes, Lennon quickly found himself a target of the Nixon administration, who launched a deportation campaign against him that would drag on for years. Lennon’s struggle for citizenship was covered extensively in The U.S vs. John Lennon, yet Epstein unearths even more previously unseen material to help bolster our understanding of that particular period. We get to hear Lennon perform (and defend) “Woman is the Nigger of the World” on the Dick Cavett Show, and we finally get some words from the mysterious Elephant’s Memory Band, his go to backup band during the earl-'70s. You’ve surely seen the footage of Lennon’s only major post-Beatles solo performance (1972's One to One Concert), but you probably didn’t know that this show was supposed to be a warm up for a major US tour.
The New York City honeymoon period wouldn’t last long. The One to One show was savaged by critics, scuttling what would have been the first US solo tour by a Beatle. On the evening of Nixon’s reelection, a drunk and depressed Lennon brought his entourage to Jerry Rubin’s apartment, where Lennon proceeded to have noisy sex with a stranger, an embarrassing event that Yoko Ono still has trouble describing almost 40 years later. With his marriage and career on the downturn, Lennon split for the West Coast, where he lived out his infamous Lost Weekend over the next few years. Most of the material from this period has been available for some time, yet it’s always a kick to hear the ridiculous studio banter from the notorious, Phil Spector helmed Rock N’ Roll sessions. Elton John and legendary drummer Jim Keltner make rare appearances here and May Pang, Lennon’s stopgap girlfriend, provides some wonderful insights as well as the last known photos of Lennon and Paul McCartney.
We already know how the final chapter of this film is going to play out but that doesn’t mean it can’t break our hearts one last time. Lennon quits the bottle, saves his marriage and has a baby before retiring from music for nearly five years. He eventually rediscovers his muse and hits the studio to crank out tunes with horribly ironic titles like “Life Begins at 40” before his life ends at 40. It’s this final period of Lennon’s life where the myth is finally stripped away from the man. Friends, from photographer Bob Gruen to final label head David Geffen, all remark on the Lennon’s successful quest for inner peace while Double Fantasy session players portray Lennon as a man operating at the peak of his creative powers. A recording of Lennon saying goodnight to his son Sean from one of his final sessions is almost too much to take. When December 8th finally arrives (presented tactfully here with familiar images of the candlelight vigil outside of the Dakota), it hits harder than ever. A teary, still bereaved Yoko Ono asks the same question we’ve been asking for 30 years. “Why would you want to kill an artist?”
Michael Epstein and his crew deserve commendation for presenting another side of John Lennon. If unreleased footage and comprehensive interviews aren’t enough to draw you to LENNONYC, there’s always the man himself. Few people could ever tell you what it’s like to be human better than John Lennon could, and his words here, whether he’s preaching peace or ordering sushi, continue to captivate and inform. We’ll always turn to John Lennon for his music and his message and we’ll remain poorer in his absence.