Woodstock, NY -- John Lennon loved New York City. Although his love affairs were generally rough and rocky -- his love for the Beatles crashed hard, his love for mother England turned sour, his love for Yoko Ono took a nasty plunge, his love for music slipped away -- but his love for New York City never wavered. That was rock solid.
The opening film for the 11th annual Woodstock Film Festival, a festival that continues to rise in national prestige, LennonNYC explores the ex-Beatles' life from the summer of 1971 when he arrived in New York to December of 1980 when he was shot to death outside his Dakota apartment building. For nearly a decade, Lennon embraced the gritty, violent, yet dynamic and creative, New York of the 1970s. A short stint in Los Angeles, after being kicked out of the apartment by wife Yoko Ono, was disastrous and Lennon degenerated into self-destruction. He missed terrible Yoko, and his New York.
"New York is the greatest place on the planet," Lennon said. "I should have been born in New York." And when Yoko allowed him back, Lennon returned to New York where he lived for the rest of his life.
This documentary does not plow new ground. It's not what one can call an in-depth investigation of his life in New York. There is no effort to understand the complex relationship between Yoko and John, explore her reputation as dominating and manipulative, nor John's deep insecurity probably the result of being abandoned in childhood. There is not even any mention of their alleged heroin addiction in the New York. And the fan worshiping in the film can be downright embarrassing. Yet, surprisingly, all of this does not destroy the film.
In fact, LennonNYC is a gorgeous tapestry weaving archival footage -- some from Yoko Ono's private collection -- with seldom-seen photos and interviews with band members and recording technicians some of whom have said little or nothing publicly over the years. And some of the family audio tapes are truly insightful. Real gems! The film's greatest value, probably for most, is in bringing back what we have forgotten, or what has been dulled by the years. That vibrant, passionate John Lennon in New York during a time of national turmoil.
The bloody war in Vietnam was dragging on without an end in sight, America society was increasingly polarized and hateful, a vicious group called the Nixon Administration was camped in the White House -- soon to be booted out of the White House. And US Immigration was attempting to deport John Lennon, who was viewed as a threat not to peace, but to war. For 4 ½ years, Lennon fought his deportation, the harassment and the intimidation, and finally he won to remain in the city of his love.
We see John Lennon and the ever present Yoko Ono as artists and activists, then Lennon withdraws from politics and music to become the caring father and a house husband, and finally, in middle age, Lennon returns to music with the confidence that he can now achieve a balanced life.
And just when life had become truly gorgeous, the dark side of America appeared. A man consumed by insanity shoots Lennon. In a country with an insane gun policy that allows even the insane to have guns, a man who advocated peace and fought for more than 4 years to live in his beloved New York City, is killed outside his apartment. It's tragedy wrapped in insanity, insanity on several layers.
LennonNYC does not deal with the assassin, which is good -- a tormented nut-case can tell us nothing about John Lennon. The documentary remains focused on its riveting subject. A man who was a celebrity artist, a private house dad, and a mature man who returned to the music yet remained the loyal dad. What John Lennon found in New York, a city of extremes, was, ironically, balance. The balance of a private life and a public life. And that brought him the greatest joy of his life.
What LennonNYC lacks in depth and skips in sensitive issues, the film makes up for in comprehension and intensity. Not a flawless film, yet a truly engaging journey for those who have forgotten what John Lennon meant to us, and for those who never knew what he meant.
The film premieres nationally Monday, November 22 at 9pm on American Masters on Public Broadcasting Service.