December 13, 2010
One day, a man walked into a clothing store in New York City and saw
a jacket he liked. He took it to the front counter, paid for it and left.
It sounds like an ordinary day for anybody else. But for John Lennon,
it was a mind-blowing, new experience.
Obviously, the details of Lennon's life have been well-covered in
other movies, books, even his own songs. But the new documentary
"LENNONYC" benefits from narrowly focusing on Lennon's love affair
with New York, and his hope that even one of the most famous people
in the world could live a normal life there. The movie premiered last
week on public television's "American Masters" to commemorate the
30th anniversary of Lennon's death, and is now available on DVD.
The film covers all the events in the last decade of the ex-Beatle's
life, from his anti-war activism that nearly got him deported to his
drunken binging in Los Angeles to his healing relationship with his
young son, Sean. But as the title suggests, the film comes back again
and again to New York City, where Lennon and Yoko Ono lived from
1971, when they fled the brutal British tabloids in London, to Dec.
8, 1980, when Lennon was assassinated by Mark David Chapman.
One of the most striking things about seeing the archival footage of
Lennon from that era is how the man who once proclaimed his band to
be "bigger than Jesus" seems so unassuming. We see him walking
through Central Park arm in arm with Yoko, occasionally stopping to
sign autographs for some fans, but often ignored by passersby.
When he does take the stage, playing benefit shows with anti-war
activists like Abbie Hoffman or with his own band, he doesn't carry
himself like a star. The movie includes interviews with the sidemen,
producers, recording engineers and others who Lennon worked with, and
one of the recurring comments is that Lennon didn't like the idea of
being a solo artist. He liked being part of a band, jamming with
other musicians, flying under the radar. It was an unassuming
philosophy that he tried to carry beyond the recording studio, too.
The movie isn't the definitive take on Lennon's life and, given that
it has the close involvement of Ono and Lennon's friends, it paints a
rosy picture of the ex-Beatle. But fans will appreciate this window
into Lennon's later years; he was mellowing happily into a middle age
full of creative energy and parental bliss. Until it was cut short.
Of course, there are plenty of other movies that feature Lennon, both
real and fictional. The definitive documentary has been 1988's
"Imagine: John Lennon," which covers the entire arc of Lennon's life,
and for which Ono made tons of archival footage available. The scene
where a fan breaks into Lennon's country estate, and instead of
calling the cops Lennon invites him to have breakfast, and lectures
him on the perils of celebrity worship, is unforgettable.
Lennon's anti-war activism, and the Nixon administration's attempts
to kick him out of the country, are explored in more detail in the
documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon."
On the fictionalized front, the BBC recently released a film called
"Lennon Naked," which looked at Lennon's last few years in Britain,
including the break-up of the Beatles and his meeting Ono. The film
is clearly a sensationalized account, but benefits from an uncanny
performance of the Beatle by Christopher Eccleston, best known as the
first "Doctor Who."
Aaron Johnson ("Kick-Ass") did a good job playing a cocky teenage
Lennon in "Nowhere Boy," which only played for a week at Point and
comes out on DVD on Jan. 25. Ian Hart makes a convincing Lennon in
1994's "Backbeat," which looks at the Beatles' early days playing in Hamburg.
But no survey of Lennon on film would be complete without "Walk Hard:
The Dewey Cox Story," and Paul Rudd's absolutely hilarious cameo as
Lennon, his Liverpool accent ridiculously thick. Ono probably didn't
like it, but I'll bet Lennon would have laughed.