For all of us who love John Lennon and his music, 2010 has been a year of special anniversaries. Earlier this year, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of his birth in Liverpool, and with it the memory of how the Beatles changed the world — and us — and how Lennon continued to make honest, brave and provocative music after the great band split apart. But we also must return to that terrible evening 30 years ago, on Dec. 8, 1980, when Lennon was murdered outside his apartment building in New York City.
"Lennon NYC," a documentary about Lennon's solo career, his love of New York City and his life in the United States after the breakup of the Beatles, brings back a rush of these memories. This fine work, written and directed by Michael Epstein, is airing on PBS stations and was released on DVD this week (A&E Home Entertainment, $24.95, not rated).
Much of this story is familiar, of course, to the legions of John Lennon fans. It's a story that has been told well in previous documentaries. "Imagine: John Lennon," from 1988, placed the emphasis on the personal side of Lennon's life, especially his sometimes tumultuous relationship with his wife, Yoko Ono, and his adoration for his young son Sean. "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," from 2006, focused more on Lennon's activism against the war in Vietnam and the difficult and long struggle he fought to avoid the deportation sought by the administration of Richard Nixon.
"Lennon NYC" attempts to synthesize the key elements of these two earlier films. It provides information about Lennon's family life, his solo recordings, his politics and the deportation case, while adding previously unseen home movies and unheard interviews and recording studio banter, as well as concert footage, photographs and new interviews with many of those who knew him.
As its title indicates, the new film emphasizes Lennon and Ono's love of New York City, a place where they found artistic freedom and a semblance of a private life following their harassment by the British tabloid press before, during and after the Beatles' demise. In a radio interview, Lennon explained why he was contesting the deportation: "I love it here. That's why I'm fighting so much to stay here in New York. Maybe they could just ban me from Ohio, or something."
The documentary moves along to some of the happiest years of Lennon's life. New interviews and never-seen footage and photographs chronicle the birth of Lennon and Ono's son Sean — on the same day Lennon won his deportation case and his own birthday. But as the film explores Lennon's decision to become what he called a "househusband" and leave the music business to raise his son, as well as his eventual return to the recording studio, in 1980, to make the "Double Fantasy" album, a sense of dread arises. We know what's coming next.