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D.A. Pennebaker
John Lennon

Not Rated.

Standard 1.33:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1

Runtime: 53 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 1/22/2002

• John Lennon Art Exhibit Footage


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John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band: Sweet Toronto (1988)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Of all the solo Beatles, only John Lennon never toured. Ironically, though Ringo Starr was the last member to hit the road, he’s played the most shows over the last decade. Ringo never toured until he created the “All-Starr Band” in 1989, and he’s been a fixture of many summers ever since that time.

Though Ringo’s lapped him since 1989, Paul McCartney offered the most consistent road presence after the Beatles’ split in 1970. Since 1980, he’s only launched two major tours - in 1989/90 and 1993 - but he spent significant amounts of the Seventies on the road. As I write this in January 2002, he’s also considering another American outing, which hopefully will come to fruition soon.

George Harrison maintained a very low public profile for the last decade of his life, but even he hit the road a few times. His lengthiest tour took place in 1974, when he played America behind the Dark Horse album. Other than a mix of isolated appearances - with the most significant being the 1972 Concerts for the People of Bangladesh - George only played one other semi-extended string of dates, when pal Eric Clapton convinced him to do a short tour of Japan in 1991.

As for Lennon, he may well have launched his first tour on the heels of 1980’s Double Fantasy, but sadly, we’ll never know. While he never undertook a full trek, he did play a few shows over the years, many of which have made commercial appearances. In 1974, Elton John guested on John’s Walls and Bridges album for a couple of songs. One of these - “Whatever Gets You Thru the Night” - was the record’s first single, and Elton bet Lennon that if the tune hit number one, then Lennon would have to play with Elton when he came to New York. “Night” indeed topped the charts, so Lennon came on to perform that tune as well as “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” - Elton’s hit remake of the Beatle tune - and “I Saw Her Standing There”; in Lennon’s typically sardonic manner, he dedicated the latter to an “old estranged fiancée of mine named Paul”, since it indeed was McCartney’s tune. (Since I liked Elton before I liked the Beatles, I knew this version of “Standing” before I heard the original. As such, it confused me to no end when I discovered the latter; why was Paul singing Lennon’s tune??!!)

The most significant Lennon concerts occurred on August 30, 1972. On that day, he staged two shows at Madison Square Garden to benefit mentally retarded children. Documented on the video and album called Live In New York City, these 18-song performances (including four Yoko numbers) definitely offer the most extensive airings of live Lennon.

However, that project didn’t get released commercially until after John’s death in 1980; it didn’t hit stores until 1986. For many years, the only live Lennon available to fans came from a September 1969 one-off performance at something called the “rock ‘n’ roll revival” in Toronto. Originally the show was to simply include old-timers Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley; the organizers invited Lennon simply to be in the audience. However, John indicated that he didn’t want to just sit there, so he said he’d come only if he could play.

Lennon nearly chickened out at the last minute, but ultimately he did hit the stage with a cobbled-together group dubbed the Plastic Ono Band. (Among a number of other mistakes, the DVD’s case calls this the only live appearance of the POB, but that’s incorrect; they also did a December 1969 show in London.) This conglomeration included bassist Klaus Voorman - an old friend from the Beatles’ German days, and also the designer of the Revolver album cover - as well as drummer Alan White, both of whom were frequent studio collaborator with Lennon in those days; Voorman and White also appeared on the Imagine album as well as singles like “Cold Turkey” and “Instant Karma”. On guitar, Lennon recruited Clapton, and wife Yoko Ono came along to sit in a bag and wail. (No, that’s not a joke.)

Whether or not the POB rehearsed remains uncertain. I checked out two Beatles books I own; one claims they practiced on the plane, while the other says that because of his fears, John skipped the first flight with the band and barely made it to the show. Whatever the case may be, one thing seems certain: the POB had little preparation before they hit the stage in front of about 25,000 punters in Toronto.

Lennon’s nervousness seems palpable, and understandable to boot. After all, he hadn’t played before a paying crowd since August 1966, and here all of the pressure was on his head. His lack of security comes through via some of his antics, especially when he tries to loosen up via some Elvis Presley-style hip shakes; instead of presenting jocularity, they look very forced and self-conscious.

Over the years, the Toronto concert - documented here in a DA Pennebaker film called Sweet Toronto - has enjoyed a pretty strong reputation. Most Beatles fans know if via the 1969 album called Live Peace In Toronto, while others will come to it through this project. Many have marveled at the energy and spirit apparent in its vibes.

Unfortunately, I have to disagree with the common perception, at least as the show appears on this DVD. Lennon and the POB put on a sloppy performance that night. Mainly they ran through a roster of old rock chestnuts: “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”, and “Money (That’s What I Want)” led off the set. Not counting “Lizzie” - which they covered on Help! - the only Beatles tune to make the cut was The Beatles’ classic “Yer Blues”, while his set ended with two then-current Lennon songs: “Cold Turkey” - which hadn’t yet been released - and “Give Peace a Chance”.

After that, the POB remained onstage, but Ono took the spotlight. She wailed through renditions of “Don’t Worry Kyoko (Mummy’s Only Looking For Her Hand In the Snow)” and “John John (Let’s Hope For Peace)” for the final 16 or so minutes of the show. That sound you hear is the collective march of thousands as they work their way toward the exit.

Actually, to be fair to Ono, her material isn’t as unlistenable as some might have you believe. Yes, her work remains challenging and unusual, but a lot of subsequent artists incorporated her avant-garde style, and the music makes more sense in a modern context. I’m not saying it’s good - I still skip it when given the chance - but the tracks aren’t as weak and pointless as the common mindset would indicate.

On the other hand, Lennon’s set isn’t as positive as most would have you believe. I’m all for rawness, but this is just shoddy. The musicians rarely seem to be on the same page, and they essentially stumble through the various songs. “Lizzie” worked much better on Help!, and “Yer Blues” is just a pale shadow of its studio self. “Cold Turkey” also seems soft and meandering, especially when compared to the harrowing single version.

In addition to the POB material, Toronto includes a few snippets from the oldies stars. We hear a painfully long version of “Bo Diddley” from Bo Diddley as well as the odd choice of “Hound Dog” from Lewis; why in the world didn’t they include one of Lewis’ own tunes? In addition, Berry rocks through “Johnny B. Goode” while Richard stomps out “Lucille”. All seem competent but unexceptional; Berry probably comes across best.

As for the presentation of the concert, it seems almost as slapdash and amateurish as the POB performance. Filmed by noted documentarian DA Pennebaker - who created the legendary Dylan film Don’t Look Back as well as Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture - the cameras restrict themselves severely. During the daylight shots, we see far too much of the crowd, but the scope gets very conservative after dark. The Lennon segments seem especially plain. For the most part, we simply see medium shots of John. Many of these seem poorly framed; for example, during much of “Lizzie”, the camera cropped about half of John’s head!

Occasionally they cut to Clapton - who simply looks confused and stares at Lennon the whole night, probably because he wasn’t sure where to go in the songs - or to Yoko. She stands next to John and holds up a lyric sheet for him. At first, I thought she needed it for herself, which amused me; she required a lyric sheet to produce unintelligible wails? However, it soon became clear the words were there for John, who openly refers to them much of the time.

Speaking of those Yoko wails, they mar a few of the songs. As I noted, I have no real problem with her solo work, but I wasn’t wild about her presence during the other tunes. Interestingly, the mix used for the DVD makes her “contributions” to tracks like “Yer Blues” much more obvious. I listened to the album version and heard that she’d been almost totally reduced out of the mix. That wasn’t the case for the video edition, which left her wailings obvious.

Speaking of the Live Peace, oddly, I thought that the music evident on the DVD seemed much more appealing when heard and not seen. Prior to my acquisition of Sweet Toronto, I’d listened to the various Lennon tracks many times over the years, and I retained a fairly positive impression of them. As such, it seemed weird that I suddenly thought less of them when I watched the DVD. However, I definitely did. Perhaps the different mix had something to do with it; Ono’s intrusions certainly made some of the tracks less appealing. I also feel that the bland and unsteady visual presentation had a negative impact.

I have to admit that Sweet Toronto remains a very cool document to possess. As noted, Lennon played very few live shows in his life, and after this one, the Plastic Ono Band would perform only once more. (Portions of that show appear on Lennon’s Some Time In New York City album from 1973.) While useful for archival reasons, the concert performance itself simply seems too sloppy and meandering to merit any sort of classic status. Some of the raw energy helps carry the day, but the general confusion and sloppiness make the show less than terrific.

The DVD Grades: Picture C+ / Audio C+ / Bonus D-

Sweet Toronto appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. For its age and origins, Sweet Toronto provided a decent picture, but it definitely included a heavy roster of concerns.

Shot on 16mm film, Toronto showed a lot of the issues that often occurred with the format. Sharpness generally seemed fairly good. Definition never came across as terrifically crisp and well defined, but the image also lacked any examples of true softness. Due to the “on the fly” nature of the production, the program had a few shots that varied in focus, but that resulted from the camerawork, not from the transfer. Overall, the film seemed reasonably accurate but not terribly vivid. Moiré effects and jagged edges demonstrated no significant concerns, and I also saw no evidence of edge enhancement.

Colors seemed adequate but bland. Another drawback of the original film stock, the hues looked reasonably clear for the most part, but they suffered from a generally flat and dull sheen; the colors never came across as vibrant or bright. Black levels fell within the same spectrum, as dark tones were a bit muddy across the board. Shadow detail looked somewhat murky due to the lackluster blacks, but low-light situations usually showed acceptable delineation.

Without question, the biggest concern I found during Toronto related to print flaws. Actually, even those occurred mainly due to the original film stock. True defects popped up at times, but the movie didn’t suffer from too many of them. I saw occasional examples of speckles, grit, small hairs, nicks and general debris, but these actually appeared fairly light for a film of this vintage.

On the other hand, Toronto provided an exceptionally grainy image. From start to finish, the movie was riddled with grain, and that element could seem somewhat oppressive at times. Actually, it was worst during the Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry segments since those took place during the day. Shot at night, the Little Richard and Lennon cuts benefited from the darkness, which hid a lot of the source flaws. The grain still seemed evident, but not as persistently so. Objectively, Sweet Toronto had a fair number of problems and didn’t offer much of a picture, but subjectively, I must admit I thought it looked pretty good based on its age and my expectations.

I felt the same about the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Sweet Toronto. Actually, I was shocked to find a 5.1 mix, as I expected the DVD to include stereo at best. For the most part, the track really was glorified stereo, as the soundfield remained heavily oriented toward the front. Within that spectrum, stereo imaging appeared fairly mediocre. Instruments spread tentatively to the side speakers but the mix didn’t provide a very clear or well-defined presence. Some better definition of vocals occurred at times, specifically when Bo Diddley and his back-up singer engaged in a call and response pattern.

Overall, however, the mix seemed a little muddy in regard to separation. Much of the sound stayed oriented toward the center, and the audio mainly moved mildly toward the sides. As for the surrounds, the remained quiet much of the time. Between songs, crowd noise filled the rears pretty effectively, and a couple of tunes - most notably Ono’s sonic extravaganzas - actually featured some decent reinforcement from the rear, but as a whole, the track stuck with the forward spectrum.

Audio quality seemed acceptable but lackluster. Vocal definition appeared reasonably good, as the singers consistently sounded fairly natural and distinct. Instruments were less consistent. Mid-range dominated the proceedings, as highs seemed somewhat restricted and flat, while bass response usually appeared limited. Actually, early in the program, low-end frequencies came across as surprisingly deep and pleasing, but these dried up to a large degree after Diddley’s performance. Lewis, Berry and Richard all lacked significant depth, and Lennon’s performance was inconsistent. The first few songs seemed somewhat tinny, but the bass deepened with “Yer Blues”. Unfortunately, that tune also introduced some significant tape hiss. A little noise appeared earlier, but the hiss became much more prevalent at the start of “Yer Blues” and it remained that way through the end of the concert.

As with the picture, the soundtrack of Sweet Toronto was limited by the source material, though not all of its concerns came from those elements. The 5.1 mix added an artificial layer of “stadium echo” that became a little distracting; this factor was never excessive, but it seemed like a cheap attempt to create atmosphere. Otherwise, however, the concerns I detected resulted from the 30-plus-year-old tapes. Live Peace In Toronto was never a sonic extravaganza, and the DVD reflected the original material. Objectively, it remained passable for the era but not very strong. Subjectively, however, I felt fairly pleased, as the audio matched or surpassed most of my expectations.

Technically, Sweet Toronto includes no supplements, as its only new piece actually appears at the start of the program. However, since this is a new snippet, I consider it to be an extra and will examine it as such. When you fire up the movie, you’ll initially encounter some shots of a September 1988 exhibit of Lennon’s art along with a short Yoko interview. The piece lasts for three minutes and 35 seconds as Ono discusses John’s art, the origin of the name “Plastic Ono Band”, and a couple of other small tidbits. It’s not very interesting.

As a memento of a famous event, Sweet Toronto offers an invaluable resource. As something to watch and enjoy, it’s less of a success. As a longtime Beatle fan, I’m happy to have it, but I can’t say I’ll want to check it out with much frequency, as the music simply seems flat and rambling at times. The DVD offers flawed but acceptable picture and sound with almost no extras. Serious Beatles collectors will want to own this one, but others should skip it.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3 Stars Number of Votes: 9
4 3:
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