It was thirty years ago today.
"Lennonyc" (AKA "LennonNYC") director Michael Epstein doesn't mention the name of the man who shot and killed John Lennon in New York City on Dec 8, 1980 and I will honor that decision by refraining from doing so as well. "Lennonyc" is not about the death of John Lennon, but rather about a specific time in his life, his post-Beatles' relocation to New York where he carved out a new identity for himself as an artist, a husband to Yoko Ono and, eventually, a father to son Sean.
Epstein shapes the story of John Lennon's final decade into a classical three act structure. At first, John and Yoko are giddy with the promise of a new life in Greenwich Village (where they moved in 1971) where they were able to connect with underground artists (like Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg) and also with leftist political protesters like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Lennon leveraged his fame into a position at the forefront of the 70s social protest movement (in an identity crisis after the 1968 election of Nixon and the subsequent Kent State killings), courting controversy from his critics and former fans as well as unwanted attention from the FBI.
A victim of Nixon's and J. Edgar Hoover's paranoia, Lennon was identified as a dangerous extremist and was threatened with deportation, nominally based on a prior charge in England for possession of hashish. The legal fight would consume much of the first five years of the decade (this topic is covered in detail in the 2006 documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon.") It was yet another source of stress for Lennon who dearly loved New York and planned to spend his life there. John also fought another battle, defending Yoko from vicious press attacks. Lingering resentment that Yoko had "broken up the Beatles" made her a target for the most personal of attacks, including ones about her appearance. The couple refused to back down, and Ono became an increasingly prominent presence in her husband's work.
The public pressure appeared to unite the couple who spent virtually 24 hours a day together, but in the second act of the film, Yoko, partly in response to John's infidelity, puts an end to the relationship (or at least calls a prolonged time out). Lennon responded by moving to Los Angeles where, unfortunately, he reconnected with producer Phil Spector and a host of other unsavory characters who stood by idly as he sank ever deeper into an alcoholic stupor that threatened to destroy his career and possibly end his life. Esptein's film distinguishes itself from other Lennon docs by spending a great deal time on this dark time in John's life.
But then comes redemption in the third act as Lennon, bootstrapping himself into sobriety (details about his recovery are quite spotty), returns to NYC to refocus on his career and, ultimately, to win back Yoko, put an end to his prolonged deportation hearing, and become a father, all leading up to the climax of John and Yoko's intimate collaboration on "Double Fantasy." The fact that this occurred just months before Lennon's murder does little to dampen the impression of a happy ending. Lennon described "Double Fantasy" as "The Well Album," acknowledging that after a long, strange journey, he had finally arrived at a happy place and was still creating some of the best work of his career (as was Yoko).
The documentary features extensive interviews with Lennon's collaborators at the time, included producers, engineers and band mates, among them members of Elephant's Memory, the New York band that played with John and Yoko on two albums in the early 70s. Yoko Ono is the most frequent interviewee and is surprisingly frank when discussing John's infidelity that partially led to their breakup.
The interviews guide us through the story, but the aspect of "Lennonyc" that will most appeal to fans is the collection of audio outtakes from various recording sessions throughout the decade. They range from the charmingly mundane (the film opens with audio of John ordering sashimi), to alternate takes of songs like "Mind Games," "Jealous Guy" and "Beautiful Boy," to a hilarious recording of Lennon entertaining listeners on the radio (and even taking calls). Lennon was a sharp, natural wit who knew how to work a crowd.
Other highlights include John and Yoko's appearance on the Dick Cavett show where they performed "Woman is the Nigger of the World." Cavett was strong-armed by the network into reading a disclaimer before the shot, but it's still hard to believe a network show today would have programmed the controversial couple and their controversial song. Home footage of John as house-husband with little Sean in tow is also quite moving. There are also a few unintentionally funny moments such as when one of the talking heads offers his expert analysis: "John was a very strong song writer." I hear Babe Ruth had some power too.
Yoko Ono obviously had a major hand in shaping this film, so if you're looking for some kind of exposé you're not going to get one. This is a story about a life shared by two lovers and artists who found, lost, and then found each other again. It's quite moving even if it smoothes out the story a bit.
The film is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. The interlaced transfer is fairly solid overall though the picture quality obviously varies with different archival sources.
The DVD is presented with the option to listen in Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1. There's not a huge difference between the two, and both are competent if unspectacular soundtracks. Lennon's music sounds rich and full though obviously the kind of quality you'll get from listening to a remastered CD, but who would expect that? No subtitles are provided.
None. Not even a Trailer.
There are several John Lennon documentaries and biopics, but "Lennonyc" fills a gap by covering his 1971-1980 period in fair detail. The film emphasizes Lennon's love for Yoko and for New York City, while also spotlighting the role that alcoholism played in his self-destruction in the mid-70s. With great performances (some rarely heard alternate takes), home video footage and family photos, "Lennonyc" provides intimate access to Lennon's life with Yoko (and, later, Sean) and some material that will be new even to devoted Beatles and Lennon aficionados.