Friday, January 7, 2011

LENNONYC (John Lennon NYC) Blu-ray Review

In the interest of full disclosure, the Beatles are my favorite band and I've enjoyed all of their post-Beatles efforts as well. Now that that's out of the way, LENNONYC is a glimpse into the life of John Lennon after the Beatles disbanded and he moved to New York City with Yoko Ono. Lennon loved New York City and proclaimed it to be his new home but his vocal and effective anti-war stance quickly brought the full force of the U.S. Government down upon him. This is a look into the life and times of John Lennon who while trying to discover what kind of life he wanted also had to fight from being deported from America for being who he was.

Film (4 1/2 stars out of 5)

There's never been a band in the history of music bigger than the Beatles. By the time they disbanded, all of the infighting, the miscommunication, the lawsuits, and just overall exhaustion took a toll on all four members. Every one of them coped in different ways after the break up with varying degrees of success and happiness, but for John Lennon it took a little longer. Life in London was very hard on John and Yoko because of the incessant fans and because of the hostility of some of those fans and the press because of Yoko. It's easy to lay all the hard feelings on the public perception that it was because Yoko broke up the Beatles and although I'm sure that played a part in it, I don't believe that was entirely the cause. John on his own, had increasingly become more and more vocal over time about his opinions and not everyone agreed with him and many thought he should just stick to his music. Outrageous stunts like the bed-in where Yoko and John stayed in bed and invited the press to talk to them while a sheet covered their heads, probably caused more to question his well-being than his desire for peace.

The situation grew bad enough that the Lennons moved to New York City in 1971, where they immediately felt at home among a city full of fellow anti-war artists and musicians. The American anti-war movement was equally happy to have John with them as he brought his considerable fame with him every time he performed, which allowed the movement a white hot spotlight to spread their beliefs. Pretty soon, John started speaking out again while performing concerts for a variety of causes like freeing prisoner from prison (which worked) to raising funds for a mental institution and schools. When people saw that his celebrity and commitment to his beliefs could actually implement change, it galvanized the anti-war movement and at the same time, alarmed the U. S. Government who deemed Lennon a viable threat and started what they termed "a strategic counter-measure," by notifying Lennon of deportation proceedings.

As the film's director and writer Michael Epstein makes clear, this threat by the Nixon Administration had a severe effect on John who dearly loved New York and had no desire to leave. The stress from the possibility of deportation combined with Nixon winning his re-election bid, engaged John's self-destructive streak. After drinking heavily, Yoko and him went to a party and he grabbed a woman there and loudly made love to her while Yoko stood there completely embarrassed in front of their friends. This disrespect to Yoko made her send John away so they could have a break and she sent their assistant May Pang to go with John when he moved to Los Angeles.

The movie spends quite a bit of time covering what John would later describe as his "lost weekend," which lasted eighteen months. This dark chapter in his life shows how John at this point had lost everything that meant something to him and how he spiraled out of control and sunk into a deep alcoholic fueled depression that only got worse as time went on. Although his band members and friends were concerned about him, none of them felt that they could really help him. Paradoxically, for Yoko everything was going great. Her work was being viewed more favorably and she had never been more productive. Calls from John's friends to her asking her to take care of John went on deaf ears as she felt that they had never wanted her around and now John was their problem to deal with. John's alcohol intake was growing exponentially and his drunken antics began to put him in danger and also in the newspapers.

It wasn't until 1974 that John came back to New York intent on becoming sober and making an album and by doing so, getting his life back in order. The resulting album, "Walls and Bridges" provided him with his only #1 single apart from the Beatles with "Whatever Gets You Thru the Night," which also featured Elton John. John joked that if the song ever hit #1 then he would join Elton on-stage at Madison Square Garden and when it did, he kept his word. It was at that concert that John connected with Yoko again and they eventually resumed their relationship which provided the stability that John needed. When his son Sean was born in 1975, John finally found the life he had been searching for. All in one day, John realized his heart's desire as the day that Sean was born was also John's birthday and also the day he finally won his deportation case and was allowed to to stay in the U.S. legally. Being with Yoko and Sean in his adopted hometown of New York and free from any threats of being deported, grounded him in a way that never seemed possible before. John decided to step away from his musical career to care for Sean and that break lasted five years.

In 1980, John was back in the studio, happy, healthy, and ready to pick up where he had left off with his career. His first single was appropriately titled "(Just Like) Starting Over," which was followed by the album "Double Fantasy." His new-found happiness was captured in the album and it was his intention for it to appeal to people his own age, which caught some of the press off guard. John Lennon was content to no longer be viewed as a rock and roll icon, but instead as just a human being doing the best that he could. John, having finally found the peace and happiness he had long sought, would have it all taken away on December 8, 1980, when he was murdered in front of his residence by a "fan" for whom he had signed an autograph for earlier in the day.

This movie captures the life and times of John Lennon well. Using in between session dialogue and off-the-cuff banter and home movies, we get to see and hear the unfiltered John Lennon. He was always known for being witty, but there was several times during the movie that he made me laugh with his tongue-in-cheek comments. When he was interviewed on the radio about the government's efforts to deport him, John offered a sly compromise by joking that "maybe they could just ban me in Ohio.” In the same discussion, John takes over the DJ's duties and began describing the local weather report by commenting “they say the air is unacceptable, but I accept it.” In addition to the funny parts, there's also some very touching scenes with Sean and with his former Beatles. Knowing and seeing that John made peace with his former band-mates, especially Paul, before his death pleases me very much. Seeing footage of the two of them together at ease and friendly once again was just one of the highlights of this movie.

Another one was hearing a recording of a discussion between John and his son Sean talking about Sean's favorite song "With a Little Help From My Friends." Hearing John talk about the Beatle song is moving because not only do you sense his mixed feelings about his son's choice, but also his pride as well when Sean starts singing the lyrics (while images of the Beatles appear onscreen). It really hit me emotionally to observe that private side of John who must have struggled a lot internally on how to deal with his former band's success while at the same time distancing himself from it. I can only imagine it must have been wonderful, irritating, amusing, and frustrating all at the same time for John, especially at times like this, when his own son has picked a Beatles song over one of his own solo songs. To his credit, John seemed amused by the song choice and it took him a a minute to remember the song title before gamely going along with it like the good father he was. Moments like these, along with some honest comments from Yoko, really offer some new insights into John Lennon and who he was and what he stood for. His legacy will live on through songs like "Imagine," "Give Peace a Chance," and of course all of those legendary songs he co-wrote with Paul McCartney.

"Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans." - John Lennon

Video (4 1/2 stars out of 5)

The movie is presented in a 1.85:1 1080p anamorphic transfer that looks very good if you take into account the amount of archival footage that’s been included in the movie. Recent interviews have a solid and sharp look to them and the old footage from home movies looks okay too but of course it’s never going to look brand new. Despite the mixed and matched footage gathered from a variety of different sources, the overall quality is good.

Audio (4 1/2 stars out of 5)

There are options to listen to this in Dolby Digital 2.0 or in 5.1 and the 5.1 track sounds very good which is good when the movie is about one of music’s greatest practitioners. Dialogue is clear and front heavy but the music is well divided across all of the speakers. The Blu-ray of this movie does sound better than the DVD especially when the music is playing. There’s a few instances where it’s hard to hear the dialogue but I attribute that more to the source material than this track.

Special Features (2 stars out of 5)

The Blu-ray has an additional twenty minutes of interview footage that I thought should have been included into the main documentary as they offer some extra details that I thought were interesting. I still wish there were more features though such as a jukebox option to hear all of the music on the disc or commentaries or something. The special features are still the most disappointing aspect of this disc but at least the Blu-ray offers a little extra over the DVD version.

Final Thoughts (4 1/2 stars out of 5)

Today marks the 30th anniversary of John Lennon's death. I was eight years old when my family and I heard the news that he had been killed while we were in the car. I can still remember my shock and disbelief that someone that I cared so much for was taken away like that. At the time, my feelings of extreme sadness were also tinged with anger because I knew that there would now never be a Beatles reunion which was one of my strongest desires. As time went on and I grew up and had a son of my own, my feelings changed because now the sadness I feel is not because of the lack of a reunion, but because John Lennon was never given the chance to really enjoy the life he had fought so much for.

He never got to see his sons grow up or had the chance to spoil grandchildren, and now as a father myself, that really gets to me. It's still tragic that the world will never benefit from hearing new songs from John, or that there will never be a Beatles reunion, but the real travesty is that a light for the world was extinguished for no good reason and left a wife and two sons without a father. I plan to honor his memory by listening to his music and hopefully through this review. I highly recommend this movie to any fan of John Lennon and anyone curious about one of the most warm, talented, and opinionated trouble-makers to ever appear on the world stage. As he said, "part of me would like to be accepted by all facets of society and not be this loudmouthed lunatic musician. But I cannot be what I am not."

John Lennon 1940-1980
If you are interested in John's life after the Beatles, take a look at this!

Watch the full episode. See more American Masters.

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