Tuesday, June 14, 2011

“John Lennon: Rare And Unseen” (MVD)/“Lennonyc” (A&E)

Could there possibly be anything left to learn about John Lennon, any scrap of film or recorded sound not yet seen and/or unavailable to the public on the dozens of other documentaries devoted to former Beatles, anything truly “rare and unseen”? Apparently so.

The MVD DVD “John Lennon: Rare and Unseen” actually collects vintage material that is, yes, rare, but which has been seen. Perhaps only once, 40+ years ago, and not throughout the whole world. In other words, so few people have seen this material (with the possible exception of the David Frost interviews, which have been unavailable up till now on DVD), the title is entirely legitimate. Since the public’s fascination with Everything Lennon continues unabated - every Fall semester, the 18-year-olds in my Freshman Liberal Arts Seminar are quick to identify the Beatles in general and Lennon in particular as one of their “favorite artists” - there would seem to be a ready-made market for both DVD’s under review here. Since the MVD disc more-or-less ends where “Lennonyc” begins (the title is short for “Lennon NYC”, chronicling John’s years in New York City and, despite the title, Los Angeles), they are not in the least incompatible. Although the A&E film (originally shown on PBS” “American Masters” series) is by far the superior product, hard-core Lennon fans will want them both.

“Rare and Unseen” (part of a series of MVD releases under that rubric) is arranged so that it traces the arc of John Lennon’s career up to the early 1970’s, going back to his teen-aged days with the Quarrymen. We meet an insecure, yet irreverent young fellow, lacking confidence, social skills, and the ability to trust people. It is easy to see the roots of the anxiety he always betrayed while addressing the press, which led him to blurt out answers - often treating seriously intended questions in a sarcastic manner - which got him into trouble on numerous occasions. A goodly amount of time is spent here examining his infamous “more popular than Jesus” remark - what he said, what people thought he meant, what he really meant, why people didn’t realize what it was he actually meant, etc. As Beatles’ press officer Tony Barrow puts it, “the words in his brain never did come out right by the time they reached his mouth.” Barrow contends that if John had written his apology in a song, it would have been brilliant, but he had a difficult time explaining his words to journalists.

Though the disc is arranged chronologically, not every major event in the Beatles’ development is addressed, nor is there any intent to do that. The subjects chosen are dependent on what rare, unseen television clips were available. So we skip over some of the Beatles’ finest, most innovative moments to get to the Bed-In for Peace, and John and Yoko’s involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement as a whole. The Beatles’ managerial difficulties (the Lee Eastman faction, i.e., Paul, vs. the Allen Klein faction); the relationship between John and Paul and what their romantic entanglements may have contributed to the break-up of the Beatles (John denies it was a factor); and John’s involvement with Yoko’s avant-garde art world are among the more prominent matters discussed.

Unfortunately, there is no narration to either tie together the various segments or to serve to transition between clips, or even to explain a bit about the nature of the programs this material came from. To be sure, narrations on a program such as this can often be less than helpful, and a back-cover blurb does supply some of the missing pieces of the puzzle. It might also have been preferable to show the originals in toto, rather than split up by added remarks, as it were. But the commentary, both from the original broadcasts (Desmond Morris’ perspectives are, as one might expect, particularly insightful) and newly-recorded (Steve Harley, ex-Cockney Rebel rock star turned BBC commentator, is quite perceptive) is quite interesting. Besides, the clips are worth seeing, from a purely historical viewpoint, as well as from the eyes of a “true fan” wanting to understand as much as one can about this enigmatic hero.

Hearing all these opinions as well as the Lennon interviews over the course of 75 minutes does give you the illusion at least of understanding this complex and often seemingly contradictory individual a bit better, though he will no doubt continue to elude us forever. There are no musical performances on the disc, but this is less about John Lennon the musician than John Lennon the man. No extras, but there’s certainly enough here to warrant a recommendation..

“Lennonyc”, which takes us inside John Lennon’s world during the 1970’s until his assassination in 1980, is about the man AND the music, with a number of live performances and studio discussions. But it’s the sections on the man that are particularly significant. We begin, not with the beginning, but near the end, with studio chatter from the “Double Fantasy” sessions and interviews with a few of the musicians from that album. We hear a playful, joking John, seemingly at ease with the process of recording after being away from it for several years. But the John Lennon who is revealed to us during the bulk of the film is far less jovial, frequently hostile, eventually becoming a nasty drunk and unproductive drug addict during his L.A. stay, where he comes off as downright unlikable. Then fatherhood changes him. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

John Lennon arrived in New York City full of hope, escaping from years of Beatlemania, and from hounding by the British press who blamed Yoko for the demise of the Beatles. His political stance also got him into trouble at home. No doubt he thought in America he would be freer to express himself, both artistically and politically. But then he finds himself aligned with Chicago Seven activist Rennie Davis, plus Yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, and the full furor of the Nixon administration falls down upon Lennon’s head. Strom Thurmond convinces Washington that Lennon must be kicked out of the US. The deportation hearings drag on and on, FBI spies follow Lennon at every turn, what would have been an important tour is canceled, despite flimsy evidence that he actually posed a threat to the American way of life. But Lennon’s post-Beatles recordings with Elephant’s Memory, filled as they are with political material, controversial language, and the raw sounds of a Greenwich Village street band accompanying a man who had up until then been playing with the most famous musical ensemble in the world, also fell on uncomprehending ears, damaging his musical reputation and his commercial viability as well.

The frustrations lead to a bout of marital infidelity which led Yoko - who had literally been his constant companion up to this time - to kick him out. Lennon moves to LA, spends his time partying with Keith Moon and Harry Nilsson, two of rock’s most notorious ne’er-do-wells, clashes loudly with producer Phil Spector during the chaotic sessions for the “Rock’n’Roll” LP of oldies covers, acts crazy in public (on the club scene), and screams Yoko’s name. Significantly, a visit by Paul and Ringo found him relaxed and without animosity, but most of his three years in L.A. were pretty disastrous, and he undoubtedly saved his life by returning to NYC.

John returned to New York to straighten his life out and to work on “Walls and Bridges”. The music showed a considerable improvement. We hear John on a 1974 New York radio interview, in which he describes his continuing immigration hassles. But then, John and Yoko reconciled, around the same time that John got his green card, after a 4-1/2-year struggle. His years of faith in the American Dream having paid off, he set off on a new adventure after the birth of his son Sean. While Yoko took care of business, John became a house-husband and full-time father, roles which served to clean him up, settle his mind and body, and taught him to appreciate the more mundane aspects of life. (For example, we get a glimpse of him baking bread.)

Eventually, he realized he can be both father and musician, and set out to record “Double Fantasy,” which he conceived as an alternating showcase for himself and for Yoko. Yoko had always been a source of derision among rock fans, but David Geffen recalls that Lennon heard “Rock Lobster”, and decided the world was finally ready for her.There is a great deal of description of John’s working methods during that album by musicians Earl Slick, Andy Newmark, and Hugh McCracken, plus producer Jack Douglas and critic Robert Hilburn.

The story of Lennon’s murder is told with sirens, news footage, and Geffen’s and Yoko’s memories of how they learned of his death. It’s a story too-well-known, perhaps, to dwell on excessively here, but I found myself wanting more. What exactly I can’t tell you, just more.

Otherwise, there are very few mis-steps here. The interviews, with many people who knew and worked with John (including Elton John), are well-done, the balance of music, visuals, and information is satisfactory, and the whole production thoroughly professional, and certainly worthy of PBS standards. This is the sort of film that gives musical documentaries a good name.

115 minutes, no extras. A must-see.

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