Sounds on Screen: Sydney Film Festival – LENNONYC (NR)

Over the course of the next 12 days, I’ll be covering just about anything music related I can get my hands on at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival, in the new segment “Sounds on Screen”. From music docos to soundtracks featuring Calexico, Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead), The Chemical Brothers and more – if it heralds a musical voice, I’ll be bringing you the written word.

I’m kicking off proceedings with a documentary which saw its Australian premiere at the festival today. Peabody award winning LENNONYC, from Director/Producer Michael Epstein, is the latest in a long line of documentaries and feature films (see Nowhere Man, etc.) focusing on the life and times of John Lennon and/or The Beatles. However, this particular foray into his life wields a different spin on things: it doesn’t bother with his childhood. We all know that story, been done to death. It doesn’t bother with The Beatles. I’ve seen that one. It doesn’t even linger on his untimely passing, leaving the audience to wonder – as one often might – as to what could have been.

Instead, as we celebrate what would have been John’s 70th year (or 71st, if you want to get technical – but you get my point), Epstein takes focus on his time in America. Away from the taunts of UK press, who were cruel to his wife “…even if she was ugly, which she’s not, you wouldn’t be so mean! They even say “attractive” about the most awful-Iooking people, just to be kind!”, said a jovial John to an American reporter. To take a line out of the film – this was not about John, ex-Beatle. It was about John Lennon, the man. From his struggles to remain in America (in particular, New York – “Why don’t they just ban me from Ohio or something… not that I have anything against Ohio, I just want to stay in New York!”), to the time he spent apart from Yoko in a drunken binge in Los Angeles.

The narrative is relatively chronological, starting when Lennon has just moved to the US, at the height of the anti-war movement, to his death 9 years later. The content is occupied by stories, told through his friends and the press from the time, with plenty of music from both John and Yoko (inc. never before heard outtakes and studio recordings from the Double Fantasy sessions) and interviews with even Yoko herself. Elton John makes for some interesting banter, and on a personal level, it was exhilarating to see radio hosts and music critics from the day describe their “holy shit! I met John Lennon! Moment” – all discussing just how great he was as a person. Both Lennon’s humour and his ego come through, all in a positive light. You really get a chance to get to know the guy, something I don’t feel has been done this well in the past. Hearing John and Sean talking about a certain Beatles song brought me goosebumps… it’s at this moment you realise how well the film divorces John from that period of his life.

It’s not a perfect film – and originally screened on television station PBS in the USA as part of their American Masters series, perhaps that’s understandable. Quite a few things are unclear; perhaps they didn’t need to be said. Some of the orchestration of narrative is scattered, especially in the first quarter, and it’s probably 20 mins too long. But ultimately this is a film which gives us an honest chance to get to know the real John Lennon. By the time we leave the theatre, the realisation of his loss suddenly isn’t about his musical talent. Rather, it’s that we lost a father, a husband, and a friend, who after all these years of trying to ‘find himself’, finally had – perhaps the saddest thing of all. To humanize an icon to that level is a truly impressive feat, and one that we have Yoko to thank, who provided much of the rarely seen footage, music and photography within the film.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Beatles fanatic, consider John a religious icon, or just love music – this is a film definitely worth getting a taste of.

Review Score: 8/10.

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.