For all of us who love John Lennon and his music, 2010 has been a year of special anniversaries. Earlier this year, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of his birth in Liverpool, and with it the memory of how the Beatles changed the world - and us - and how Lennon continued to make honest, brave and provocative music after the great band split apart. But we also must return to that terrible evening 30 years ago, on Dec. 8, 1980, when Lennon was murdered outside his apartment building in New York City.
"LENNONYC," a documentary about his solo career, love of New York City and his life in the United States after the break-up of the Beatles, brings back a rush of these memories. This fine work, written and directed by Michael Epstein, is airing on PBS stations and will be released on DVD this week (A&E Home Entertainment, $24.95, not rated).
Much of this story is familiar, of course, to the legions of John Lennon fans. It's a story that has been told well in previous documentaries. "Imagine: John Lennon," from 1988, placed the emphasis on the personal side of the musician's life, especially his sometimes tumultuous relationship with his wife, Yoko Ono, and his adoration for his young son Sean. "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," from 2006, focused more on John's activism against the war in Vietnam and the difficult and long struggle he fought to avoid the deportation sought by the administration of Richard Nixon.
"LENNONYC" attempts to synthesize the key elements of these two earlier films. It provides information about Lennon's family life, his solo recordings, his politics and the deportation case, while adding previously unseen home movies and unheard interviews and recording studio banter, as well as concert footage, photographs and new interviews with many of those who knew him.
As its title indicates, the new film emphasizes Lennon and Yoko Ono's love of New York City, a place where they found artistic freedom and a semblance of a private life following their harassment by the British tabloid press before, during and after the Beatles' demise. In a radio interview, Lennon explained why he was contesting the deportation: "I love it here. That's why I'm fighting so much to stay here in New York. Maybe they could just ban me from Ohio, or something."
He added, "I'd like to live here. I don't harm anybody. I've got a bit of a loud mouth, that's about all. I certainly think there's room for an odd Lennon or two here."
"LENNONYC" takes viewers along on a lively journey concerning his friendship with anti-war activists/yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, his plan to join them in 1972 on a nationwide concert tour/voter registration campaign (the 1972 elections were the first in which 18-year-olds were allowed to vote) and his recording the radical "Some Time in New York City" album with the New York band Elephant's Memory. Ultimately, the tour was disrupted by the Nixon administration's effort to deport Lennon .
The film leaves New York to recount his "lost weekend," a time in the early '70s when he and Yoko separated and he went on a prolonged drugs-and-alcohol binge in Los Angeles. Despite his depression and steady drunkenness, Lennon managed to record his "Rock 'n Roll" album of personal favorites by other writers.
Lennon returned to New York in 1974, where he wrote and recorded "Walls and Bridges" and soon got back together with Ono. One of the most enjoyable parts of "LENNONYC" is the account of his good-natured appearance on a rock radio show to promote his new album. Bantering with DJ Dennis Elsas, John even gave a jocular reading of the weather forecast. "We're mucking about on a rainy Saturday afternoon," John joked. "We've got you all trapped in your rooms cause it's too wet to go anywhere."
The documentary moves along to some of the happiest years of Lennon's life. New interviews and never-seen footage and photographs chronicle the birth of son Sean - on the same day Lennon won his deportation case.
But as the film explores Lennon's decision to become what he called a "househusband" and leave the music business to raise his son, as well as his eventual return to the recording studio, in 1980, to make the "Double Fantasy" album, a sense of dread arises. We know what's coming next.
Ultimately, we're left with grief. I know many still share a profound sadness that not only was Lennon murdered, he was murdered in America, his adopted country, and in New York, his adopted city. He chose to live with us, and that got him killed.
But we still have his music. And in "LENNONYC," we have a documentary showing why he still means so much.