Written and Directed by Michael Epstein
**** (four stars)
"I was the dream weaver. But now, I'm reborn.
I was the Walrus. But now, I'm John."
John Lennon (1970)
In the early morning hours of December 9, 1980, my Father woke me to get ready for school and tenderly gave me some shocking information, he wisely withheld from telling me the night before. As he watched Monday Night Football, after I had long gone to bed, he heard the announcement from legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell that stopped the world cold. John Lennon had been assassinated in New York City by deranged fan Mark David Chapman, right outside of the Dakota, the apartment he shared with his wife Yoko Ono and son, Sean Ono Lennon. After hearing this news for myself, I remember silently getting out of bed, going to the bathroom to begin getting myself ready for school and immediately tuning the radio to WLS-AM for any and all information possible.
By the time I arrived at school, I was numb. My friends consoled me in classes yet, I was numb throughout the day and I couldn’t concentrate upon anything at all as I just wanted to go home, turn on the television and radio, continuously hoping to hear the news and reports to this unspeakable tragedy. Perhaps through listening to essentially the same news over and over, I could scrounge some meaning or sense from this horrific event. But, there is just no sense to be found in an act so senseless.
To any and all who have ever known me, The Beatles are, and will always be, my favorite musical band of all time as every single note they recorded is simultaneously intimate and majestic to my ears and soul. Collectively and individually, its four participants—Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon--have been heroes to me throughout the entirety of my life, quite possibly since my birth in 1969 when my father told me that for a time, I was soothed and settled to side two of the “Abbey Road” album. They are as much a part of my life as the air I breathe and I could not imagine exactly what my life would have been like if they had never joined together rand made music for the betterment of the world.
The story of their history as The Beatles has now become something akin to a classic fable or long treasured bedtime story to me, as the details of their union, musical journey and disbandment have become so deeply familiar and even comforting with its definitive beginning, middle and end. Yet, what has continued to remain unfamiliar to me are the details of their individual lives after The Beatles. Yes, these are subjects that have been long chronicled within the music press and book after book after book but aside from general details, it would surprise you that I actually do not know terribly much about their life and times after they conquered the world and changed it forever through their music.
In the beautiful new documentary, “LENNONYC,” which aired earlier this month on PBS and is now available on DVD, filmmaker Michael Epstein deftly traces the life and art of John Lennon after his 1971 immigration to New York City. The film is no dry, stately, self-important piece about an artistic figure so immensely recognizable to all of us. Epstein has brilliantly cut through all of the details and documented records to carve out an intimately and emotional travelogue into the life and evolution of a man. The film is a political story. It is a story of addiction, depression, recovery, family and an aching love story. It is the portrait of an artist set upon his own musical journey and the process contained within the music, which is so familiar to us all. Yet, what “LENNONYC” accomplishes at its very best, is to make an individual, who has reached a near mythic status, so undeniably relatible, understandable and human.
As “LENNONYC” opens, Epstein wisely skates completely over Lennon’s tenure as one of the Fab Four and immediately plunges us into the beginnings of his new life as an expatriate in New York City. I never knew how much the city that never slept had fascinated Lennon (much like my own lifelong obsessions as an anglophile) as well as his then mounting desire to escape the invasive and sometimes cruel media bubble environment of England. Marveling that he was relatively free to live his life with Yoko just as he pleased, and move around the city without much bother and pressure, Lennon was willingly adopted by members of the anti-war movement and soon became a figurehead in the struggle to promote world peace.
As plans to embark upon a nation wide tour, which would also function as a means to register 18 year olds to vote and encourage the defeat of President Nixon escalated, Lennon’s life and status in New York became placed in jeopardy. Led by J. Edgar Hoover and members of the Nixon administration, the United States Government, feeling ridiculously provoked by Lennon’s unquestionable influence with the nation’s young, threatened to have Lennon deported-an act that eventually became a four year legal battle.
This painful event, coupled with Nixon’s re-election and some painfully brutal critical assessments of his agitprop album release, “Some Time In New York City” (1972), eventually led to Lennon’s separation from Yoko Ono and his long fabled “Lost Weekend” in Los Angeles, where John Lennon became engulfed in a dangerously deep alcoholic haze and crippling loneliness without Yoko.
The remainder of the film charts Lennon’s creative rebirth upon his return to New York City in 1974, which included his triumphant appearance with Elton John at Madison Square Garden during which he received a 10-minute ovation from the crowd and finally reunited with Yoko Ono. The conclusion to his painful legal battles with the government occurred and he was profoundly blessed with the birth of their son Sean, which led to his self-imposed retirement between 1975-1980 to become a house husband and raise their son in a way he had not with his first child Julian Lennon from his first marriage. The film’s final section takes us behind the scenes of the sessions for John and Yoko’s return to music with “Double Fantasy” and sadly, his eventual murder on December 8, 1980. And throughout it all, those nine to ten years, there was the music that not only became the soundtrack of his life but also to anyone who listened and embraced it.
Epstein loads “LENNONYC” not only with John Lennon’s glorious music but he also graces us with several deeply insightful and informative interviews with key figures from Lennon’s life, including musicians with whom he collaborated (members of the band Elephant’s Memory, Elton John and “Double Fantasy” producer Jack Douglas), and close friends and associates. Additionally, we also blessed with tremendously open and self-aware archived video and audio interviews with Lennon and finally, brand new interview footage with Yoko Ono.
Ono has also graciously granted Epstein and this production access to a host of previously unreleased audio and video footage. Providing snapshot peeks through the windows of John Lennon’s creative process, we are now able to gaze into the creations of “Mind Games” (1973), “Walls and Bridges” (1974) and “Double Fantasy” through studio chatter from a host of recording sessions, including several freakishly frightening moments during the 1973 “Rock and Roll” album sessions with producer Phil Spector.
What amazed me during these sections of the film was to discover how even after The Beatles, John Lennon still continued to utilize the recording studio as another instrument through the process of really discovering the song through his musical collaborations with his studio musicians. Lennon never came off as the arrogant and elusive grand master bestowing his wisdom upon the meager session hands. He encouraged their efforts, and included anything and everything that made the song as best as it could possibly be.
I was even more amazed to learn about how intensely Lennon labored over his lyrics during his songwriting process as he strained to find the best words to fit the music and conceptual intent perfectly. His incredible economy of words became even more staggering to me as I watched because the film forced me to listen to these familiar songs anew, which illuminated deeper and sometimes coded meanings. For instance, throughout the entire “Double Fantasy” album, Lennon uses the seemingly innocuous word “Well” repeatedly. It turns out that one word and its usage was completely intentional and entirely designed to be a message to all listeners about his state of mind and being as he reached the beginnings of middle age. After five years away from the spotlight, ensconsed happily in domesticity and having reached the age of 40, John Lennon was feeling “well” and he wanted every listener to know it.
This particular aspect of his songwriting mastery allows his songs the flexibility to continue to grow, change and reveal themselves, even 30-40 years after they were first written. Think of how the song “Watching The Wheels” has changed for you over the years. When I was 11, it was “just” a great song. At the age of 41, just one year older than Lennon when he was killed, that same song contains a huge profundity that only could have been acquired through the act of growing older. John Lennon always sang of himself in his music but now, I realize that he was singing of us as well.
And then, one sequence arrived that made me choke back tears. It was a sequence of blissful audio footage of a four or five year old Sean with John at home. While I will not describe the sequence in full to you as I want for you to experience it for yourself, I can say that it is a moment that would contain an emotional familiarity to anyone who has ever spent ample time with a child. Yet, in this case, it is filtered through John Lennon’s unique history. For me, it was a moment so touching in its combined normalcy and wonder that it became the emotional highpoint of the film as it brought all of the threads together beautifully. John Lennon’s life, regardless of how fantastic it was, mirrored all of our lives and he communicate that fact into his songs. His songs were personal and generational. So simple, clear and intrinsic to his life and yet they were universal. His songs are our songs because at their core, and no matter how disturbing some of his subject matter tended to gravitate towards, these are songs of our collective humanity. No wonder the whole world and generation after generation have cherished them so.
Thankfully, “LENNONYC” does not spend much time on his murder, although it is given the proper reverence. This film is a celebration of his life, his work, and his determination to try and live it as honestly as possible, deep flaws and all. While not as expansive as Director Andrew Solt’s excellent documentary “Imagine: John Lennon” (1988), what Michael Epstein has accomplished so wonderfully is to create a lovingly helmed documentary that fans of John Lennon will treasure, savor and hopefully embrace as much as the music and life tha inspired it.