Liverpudlian John Lennon once said New York City was like a “big Liverpool” and he did indeed make the pulsating metropolis his home. American Masters’ documentary LENNONYC explores Lennon’s love for the Big Apple, and juxtaposes that love affair with his and Yoko Ono’s intense, symbiotic one. On Thursday, October 7, 2010, the Paley Center for Media screened the intimate, resonant film, which was written and produced by Michael Epstein and completed in a mere six months on a tight budget.
The film opens with audio clips and photos of the Double Fantasy recording sessions, dated August 7, 1980. Lennon is his witty, acid-tongued self, joking as he effortlessly creates unforgettable songs. The doc spans Lennon’s last ten years, where he not only resided in NYC, but discovered what freedom truly meant. With Yoko, he became the voice and face of rebellion and peace, participating in “bed-ins” and political rallies/benefit concerts. Since 1972 was the first year 18 year olds were allowed to vote, it was a volatile time in American history and it seems John and Yoko realized this, taking every opportunity to institute change and peace through their music and activism.
Throughout the pic, members of Elephant’s Memory and other notables talk about Lennon candidly, making him less a myth and more of the working-class hero he sympathized with. When John and Yoko appear on Dick Cavett’s show, John’s first post-Beatles interview, they storm the stage with controversy, unabashedly belting out “Woman is the Ni**er of the World,” with Cavett having to deliver a network-induced disclaimer prior to the performance. Not surprisingly, most complaints from viewers were directed at the lame disclaimer, not the song.
This detailed and intriguing film chronicles Lennon’s solo-artist years thoroughly and richly, covering his time in the tumultuous Village, his four year Green Card battle, his “Lost Weekend” of several self-destructive months in L.A. with Yoko Ono-appointed girlfriend May Pang and the birth of his son, Sean, which forever changes him. Several of the scenes illustrate Lennon’s supreme respect for and understanding of words and how he realized their integral relationship to music. His cheeky dialog while working on albums in the studio highlights his musical brilliance as well as his love for the King’s language. At one point during the recording of “Watching the Wheels,” he states he wants the music to be “a little laid-back because he’s watching the wheels, he’s not driving the damn truck,” but cautions his players against making it as pithy as “I Am the Walrus.” By the end scenes, which have Yoko coping with the loss of John by listening to his recordings in the studio, one realizes the world suffered an incalculable loss the fateful day of Lennon’s death, but gained a lifetime of good feelings and cerebral stimulation through his music.
There was a Q&A after the screening, hosted by Michael Axelrod of Fab Fourum, and the panelists included legendary talk show host Dick Cavett, American Masters Executive Producer/Series Creator Susan Lacy, Michael Epstein and WFUV and Sirius XM radio host Dennis Elsas. Each recounted their Lennon experiences, shedding light on the activist-cum-performer, humanizing him. Epstein’s choice of NYC as the lens for the story was an excellent selection, as it puts into focus NYC’s complexity, as well as John and Yoko’s.
In honor of what would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday, there will be a special screening of LENNONYC at Rumsey Field in Central Park at 7:00pm today, October 9, 2010. The film premieres on PBS’ American Masters on November 22, 9:00pm (check local listings).