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LennonNYC (DVD Review)

22 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Street 12/7/10
$24.95 DVD
Not rated.

Even before the recent Nowhere Boy, John Lennon was no stranger to screen renderings, fictional biopics or otherwise. So it’s true that Michael Epstein’s brand new portrait touches upon material we’ve seen before — most notably in 2006’s The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which took a certain glee in being about the 5000th cinematic nail pounded into the coffin of the Nixon Administration. To be sure, this two-hour documentary is easily 5001, but there’s also lots of fresh material, most notably in a moving second half, which deals with the period when Lennon became the world’s coolest stay-at-home daddy.

Concurrently running on PBS as part of the incessantly invaluable “American Masters” series, the story begins in 1971 when Lennon and wife Yoko Ono discovered they could live peacefully in Greenwich Village without being subjected to all the Beatlemaniacs who prevented them from taking casual strolls on London streets. The two wanted to settle in America, but John Mitchell and the boys (sounds like a rock group, but it was the Nixon Justice Department) became alarmed and, worse, agitated when it took all of two days for a Lennon-led protest concert in Ann Arbor, Mich,. to spring a guy who’d been sentenced to 10 years for possessing two marijuana joints. Now, John and Yoko were channeling this same energy to protest the Vietnam War — and in conjunction with some of the former defendants in the Chicago 10 trial.

Lennon hadn’t helped himself by getting busted for hashish, as had Donovan, Mick Jagger and other rock peers, truth to tell. This was enough for the government to launch deportation hearings, culminating in a case that stretched on for years, a threat certainly not faced by too many other guest co-hosts of “The Mike Douglas Show.” The 2006 documentary covers this material, but Epstein is after even more: Lennon’s Yoko-less migration to Los Angeles and collapse into public drunkenness; the critical publicity that resulted; marital breakup and eventual reconciliation; the 1975 birth of son Sean (whose timing coincided rather amazingly with the government’s dropping of the case) and a return to the studio after years of layoffs to fashion the well-received John/Yoko Double Fantasy album, which was released less than three weeks before Lennon’s 1980 death.

Cooperating Ono is ubiquitous, seen in recent interviews that must have been painful even 30 years after Lennon was shot by Mark David Chapman. Musician colleagues and critics share recollections, not all of them pretty. Whereas the recent Harry Nilsson documentary chronicles how he and Lennon wrecked the Smothers Brothers’ opening night at L.A.’s Troubadour with their heckling, this story awakens memories of Lennon’s equally inebriated donning of Kotex on his forehead at the same nightspot, behavior that must have had Troubadour management on the security phones or at least popping Tums every time the Lennon limo pulled up.

But generally, the tone is more benign with a slightly melancholy tinge, making an extremely persuasive case that Lennon came to be far more comfortable at home with his wife and young son than he was with celebrity.

Epstein mines what is obviously a substantial archive of still photos and audio tracks from recording sessions — especially those from Double Fantasy, which was intended to be the launching pad for an immediate follow-up album (completed at the time) and a coming tour that would take him back to England for the first time in years. The effect is extremely immediate, and one almost has the feeling that Lennon is still with us. Not that we don’t get the same tinge every time we click his name on our iPods.

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