There has obviously been a number of iconic rock musicians that have been taken from the world way too soon, and one of the biggest ones is John Lennon. Famous Beatle, political peace figure, and silly clown; Lennon has seen multiple iterations of his character in recent times committed to celluloid: his youth is explored in the upcoming film “Nowhere Boy,” the narrative account of his murderer in the too-awful “Chapter 27,” and the similar documentary “The US. Vs. John Lennon,” which dealt with the anti-war movement and subsequent deportation conflict due to the aforementioned political dissent.
“Lennon NYC” focuses on the last 10 years of his life, mostly in New York City. It touches upon his relationship with Yoko Ono, their brief (albeit messy) break-up, his post-Beatles music career and his short concentration on fatherhood. Impressively, the film shoots off and in a simple 20-30 minutes, it negates the existence of previously mentioned doc “The US Vs. John Lennon,” skillfully spending just the right amount of time on the peace concerts and goofball publicity stunts. The film explores Lennon’s character mostly through his musical career in these times, and a lot of footage of various studio sessions with the “Elephant Memory” backing band and even ones with Phil Spector are exhibited.
Superficially speaking, the fact that director Michael Epstein is the helmer here raises a bit of a red flag, as his resume mostly contains PBS docs like “The American Experience” and “American Masters.” While always informative, these pieces have a habit of being bone-dry and terribly formal. Luckily, Epstein is very passionate about his subject, and the structure of the film directly represents these feelings, producing a delightfully consistent flow and never a dull moment. The documentary is made up of the standard talking heads interviews, pictures of the subject, and various video clips, but most interesting is the inclusion of various audio recordings and interviews. Some are radio interviews of John talking about his personal life, about his interest in fatherhood or him opening up about a particular new album, others are outtakes and studio banter between band mates and the producer. These snippets, too good to pass up, are accompanied by various animated doodles often drawing John himself or other things related to his life, some even working directly with the accompanying audio. This delicate style could certainly have been too cute and overbearing, but it works with the tone of the film, keeping it going and giving it a playful energy to go along with the already consistent flow.
More importantly, it connects the viewer with the subject, as the drawings directly correlate with the rocker’s personality and even give it a piece of his heart, considering the man would often leave various doodles on whatever writings he was working on at any given time. This seemingly small inclusion is one of the film’s best assets, as it gives life and personality to a type of documentary that usually ends up being nothing other than standard.
Some of the most interesting stuff included is his brief bachelor life in LA and his dedicated parenting of second child Sean; these rare moments are are usually either forgotten or merely glossed over in favor of more obvious life moments such as Beatle-mania or his Peace Rallys. The doc is at its darkest when it gives attention to the California years, as John drinks his way through life and ends up in the paper nearly every day, accounting for the previous night’s boisterous dealings. While Beatles fans shudder at the mere mention of Yoko Ono, Epstein reveals a candid interview with her speaking of the John that nobody wanted. “I won’t take him back and take care of him, you take care of him,” she recounts, knowing full well her reputation as a dart-board for Lennon loyalists. The film is careful to show that John is a mess without her, unproductive and lacking control of his life, the times when he is productive (such as the Spector sessions) are more frightening than anything, considering his self-destructive behavior. The return to NYC finds John in a happier place; back with Ono, off the bottle, and fathering his second child. Here his musical career takes a backseat, with the only concern being his newborn son and actually being a good Dad this time around. Though much of the doc is sandwiched around the studio recordings, the film still manages to find its own among the intimate moments between father and son, when the songwriter is caught at his most fulfilled, and legitimately happy, without the anchor of goofiness.
Quite possibly the only problem is its neglectful focus on “New York City” the character. It’s admirable and masterful how much time the film covers without feeling rushed or squeezed in, however, the New York life that the musician so loved is barely given an eye. His outings in the Village are nothing but a flash, never allowed to flourish.”Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” comes to mind, as it successfully dealt with the title artist and the surrounding New York art scene (at least in the first half), detailing the area and giving a brief history. That movie showed the freedom of ambition, the nurturing environment, and the wild time that was downtown New York. There’s none of that in “Lennon NYC,” it’s almost a wonder as to why the city is included in the title at all.
Aside from its strange reluctance to delve into the city that he loved, “Lennon NYC” is a dear and efficient account of the last decade of Lennon. It doesn’t break any new ground, but is an excellently crafted and often intimate portrait of one of the most beloved musicians in rock and roll. [A-]