It wouldn’t be a calendar year if there wasn’t a biopic, documentary, television special, concert film, or deluxe edition DVD being released that in some way focused on John Lennon—and at this point, it’s become difficult to greet such a release without at least a dash of cynicism. What else is there to say? That’s an unfair question, I suppose, but so much hash and a disquieting amount of money has been made from the public life of the Beatles’s most hopeful, unique, and ultimately tragic member that his message and songs (especially those from his solo career) are met often with rolling eyes and groans of exhaustion. Even now, Nowhere Boy, a narrative glimpse at Lennon’s adolescent years starring Aaron Johnson, is set to bow in mere weeks.
Michael Epstein’s new documentary, LennonNYC, begins with the similarly groan-worthy romanticizing of New York City via Lennon’s move to Greenwich Village in the early 1970s with Yoko Ono; similar scenes are seemingly required by law to be in any documentary featuring an artist and NYC. Beginning with the “Ten for Two” concert and Lennon’s relationship with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, Epstein’s ruminations on Lennon’s connection to the Big Apple start off sounding just a bit too reminiscent of David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which used Lennon’s solo years as a way to chart the political paranoia of the Nixon era. Some new in-studio tidbits stir up a modest curiosity, but by the time we arrive at the “One-to-One” concert, inspired by the infamous Attica uprisings covered by Geraldo Rivera, we’re still far from understanding Lennon or his connection to New York City.
There is, however, a turning point which not only leads to the justification of LennonNYC being made, but reveals it as the strongest documentary about the Liverpool-born songwriter and musician released to date. As is reported by members of the Elephant’s Memory, Lennon’s bandmates while in Manhattan, Lennon, particularly devastated and monumentally inebriated after the reelection of Nixon, embarrassed Ono severely by cheating on her at a party they attended after the election, taking a random woman into an unoccupied bedroom. Exiled from New York by a humiliated Ono, Lennon made for the west coast, and it is around this time that Epstein’s film harnesses an extraordinary focus on John Lennon rather than “John Lennon.” Among other talking heads, Roy Cicala, the musician’s close friend, producer, and engineer, and Jack Douglas, another one of his producers, stand out as figures who watched as Lennon’s aborted sessions with Phil Spector and descent into alcoholism typified his so-called “lost weekend” wherein Lennon also fostered a close physical relationship with his assistant, May Pang, while calling Ono almost daily.
Punctuated with appealing flourishes of graphics and in-studio conversations, LennonNYC hits its stride while transitioning from Los Angeles to Lennon’s days as a stay-at-home father with Sean, his second son, and the sessions that yielded Walls and Bridges and Double Fantasy. Music critic Robert Hilburn sums up these salad days by relating a story of seeing Lennon take a hidden bowl out of a studio closet, thinking it was a bowl of cocaine, and being pleasantly touched when Lennon appeared with a Hershey bar for them to share instead. Lennon was always a star, but Epstein, known mostly for documentaries about the tenuous relationship between filmmakers and the business of making movies, locates him essentially as a musician, working and making close friends with session players and enjoying the process of songwriting with a band; there’s a sincere feeling of exuberance while listening to Lennon in the studio, which replaces the often used but completely false “genius at work” tone.
Though missing in overall girth, Epstein’s film has a genuine interest in Lennon as a resident of the great city, and by not clinging solely to his politics, separates itself from films that tend to file him under Beatle, ex-Beatle, or media figure. The fact that we see the legend at rest with his family even more than we see him with Elton John, David Geffen, Ringo, or McCartney makes the inevitable climax of LennonNYC, accompanied by a startling, whaling ambulance siren, hit with a renewed sense of sorrow.