Gotham provides surprisingly apt dividing lines for “LennonNYC,” as the city’s evolving urban stage dovetails with key turning points in director Mark Epstein’s chosen slice of John Lennon’s all-too-short life. Beginning with Lennon and Yoko Ono’s arrival in the city in August 1971 and ending, inevitably, at the Dakota, Epstein examines the cross-pollination between the artist and his surroundings, fashioning consistently coherent narrative flow set to extraordinary music. Celebratory docu is skedded for a free screening in Central Park on Oct. 9 (which would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday) before its Nov. 22 “American Masters” airdate on PBS.
Blessedly free of facile time-spanning montages, “LennonNYC” presents a straightforward, chronological account of John’s excellent New York adventure, bolstered by candid, oncamera reminiscences by Lennon himself and testimony from record producers, sound engineers, awestruck DJs and, of course, Ono. If the film necessarily lacks the shock effect of the reels of hitherto-unseen material in the recent Doors docu “When You’re Strange,” Epstein and editors Ed Barteski and Deborah Peretz skillfully recontextualize vaguely familiar images into a fresh-seeming throughline.
Furthermore, “LennonNYC” starts big with archival finds of its own: audio excerpts of Lennon slating takes, dabbling in decibel levels and making casual off-mic comments in unedited sessions sampled throughout the course of the film. The audio outtakes are explicated by Ono, posed against a mixing console, and by members of the group Elephant’s Memory, a gifted local backup band that John gravitated toward in Gotham. These intermittent sound blocks also help signal the docu’s different biographical periods.
The “Greenwich Village” period is ushered in with footage capturing Lennon and Ono’s ebullience at their warm Big Apple welcome after their hostile, paparazzi-plagued scuffles in London. Epstein taps the memories of ’70s countercultural figures to recall Lennon and Ono’s small Bank Street apartment; their connections with the Village’s downtown art scene, from Warhol to Ginsberg; and their intersections with yippies such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin (glimpsed in grainy 16mm). The Lennon/Ono embrace of left-wing causes resulted in tunes like “Attica State” and “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” (Dick Cavett confesses to unfounded trepidation over the latter’s network airing) and multiplied attendance at peacenik benefits and anti-Vietnam War rallies.
Per activist Tom Hayden, Lennon was perceived by government forces as a “Pied Piper” seducing newbie 18-year-old voters into radical liberalism. Photographed reams of declassified paperwork and newsreel clips of John’s multiple courtroom appearances convincingly attest to J. Edgar Hoover’s efforts to hound the couple and deport them. “LennonNYC” partly blames this harassment and Nixon’s ultimate 1972 re-election for Lennon’s meltdown, causing Ono to kick him out. Lennon’s 18-month “lost weekend” in Los Angeles yielded drunken celebrity binges, but also the nostalgic album “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” stormily produced with Phil Spector, before his eventual reunion with Ono and successful rehabilitation.
The film’s impressionistic rendering of Lennon’s death is a typically thoughtful touch in a specialized docu whose aesthetic and technical aspects consistently impress.