Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 22, 2010)
To commemorate John Lennon’s 70th birthday, we’ve seen quite a few projects. Most of these relate to a massive overhaul of his CD catalog, but we also find other forms of media. Among these: a new documentary entitled LennoNYC.
As implied by the title, the show mostly examines Lennon’s time as a resident of New York City. We learn of how/why he and wife Yoko Ono in 1971 as well as aspects of the scene at the time, with an early emphasis on the arts and radical politics. We see how this led to FBI investigations and attempts at deportation, and we also follow personal issues between Lennon and Ono and his LA “Lost Weekend”. The program then continues through his reunification with Ono, his five-year “house husband” exile from music, his 1980 comeback and his murder.
We get archival comments from Lennon, of course, as well as new interviews with Yoko Ono, recording engineer Roy Cicala, radio host Dennis Elsas, record producer Jack Douglas, photographer Bob Gruen, filmmaker Jonas Mekas, activist Tom Hayden, author Jon Wiener, television host Dick Cavett, attorney Leon Wildes, reporter Geraldo Rivera, Lennon’s “Lost Weekend” partner May Pang, publicist Elliott Mintz, rock critic Robert Hilburn, record label chief David Geffen, and musicians Earl Slick, Andy Newmark, Gary Van Scyoc, Adam Ippolito, Jim Keltner, Klaus Voormann, Elton John, and Hugh McCracken.
We definitely find a good roster of participants, as outside of the two surviving Beatles, it’s tough to think of anyone notable who fails to show up. And how about Paul and Ringo – does LennoNYC suffer for their absence? Yes and no. On one hand, a program of this sort that includes no one from the Beatles loses some luster, but on the other hand, it’s not like Paul and Ringo were heavily involved with John’s day to day life in the 1970s. Yes, they had interactions with him at times – which get covered here – but they weren’t a focal point. Still, it would’ve been nice to hear from them.
I was most surprised to see interviews with May Pang and Elton John. The latter caught me off-guard just due to his fame; he’s by far the documentary’s biggest “get”, and while Elton doesn’t tell us anything especially new or fascinating, his simple presence adds luster to the proceedings.
As for Pang, I suspect her appearance exists to give the program a sense of objectivity – one I don’t know if it deserves. Make no mistake: LennoNYC is an authorized biography, and it adheres closely to the Ono-sanctioned view of Lennon’s life. I expect her side would argue this is the accurate view of Lennon’s life – after all, literally no one spent more time with John across the nine years covered here – and one could argue that she knows the full truth of what happened.
Except there’s no such thing as “full truth”, and LennoNYC feels a little sanitized at times. Oh, it’ll throw out some seedier elements. We hear a little about Lennon’s infidelity on Election Night 1972, and it covers the booze-filled “Lost Weekend”, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of matters.
Which is why Pang’s presence feels like an attempt to seem objective that doesn’t really succeed. When we see her, we’re meant to think “oh wow – it’s May Pang! They’re going to give us an unvarnished story!” However, she doesn’t get to tell us much beyond her Yoko-sanctioned role as helper. The film makes her out to be more of a personal assistant than a girlfriend, and Pang isn’t allowed to get into much detail about her experiences with John.
So we’re usually left with the Ono-sanctioned view of Lennon’s life. Outside of the “Lost Weekend”, we hear virtually nothing about John’s personality and substance problems. The show uses the time in LA as the total repository for John’s self-inflicted woes. Sure, we see that life wasn’t always rosy during the early 1970s, but according to the documentary, that stemmed from the US Government’s harassment.
And that clearly was a major issue – the Nixon regime’s paranoia turned John into Public Enemy Number Something or Other despite his absolute lack of threat to the nation. But if you’re looking for signs of any other problems John experienced while snug as a bug with Yoko, you’re out of luck. The film paints the usual cheery image of John – as long as he’s with Yoko.
Without question, the nature of Lennon’s life in the 70s is a complicated one, but there’s ample reason to believe that he wasn’t as content during his time with Ono, and also that he wasn’t as wholly miserable without her. Again, it’s impossible to ever know the full picture, but I can say that we get a rather incomplete take here.
Don’t take this to indicate that LennoNYC fails to provide an interesting documentary, though. In truth, I rather enjoyed my time with it; most of the negative reactions came to me only when I assembled my thoughts for this review. When I watched the piece, I found an entertaining take on Lennon’s life and career across much of his “solo years”; I just thought less of it when I needed to consider it in a more critical manner.
LennoNYC certainly acts as a good primer on the “solo years”, and as I mentioned, I like the array of participants. We get a better than usual discussion of Lennon’s life in NYC as well as the issues with the US Government, and we find some nice musical details as well.
The array of performance clips makes me hope for a sequel that focuses solely on those elements. At some point, I assume Ono will release the full “One to One Concerts” show on DVD; it was out on LD and VHS, so I suspect it’s a matter of time. It’d be great to package that with Lennon’s handful of tunes from the 1971 “Ten for Two Concert”, which we see a bit of here.
On its own, LennoNYC does entertain, and it serves to provide a decent overview of its subject. However, it lacks much objectivity, and it proves to be somewhat superficial in its investigation. I still think it’s worth a look, but don’t expect a warts and all take.