"LENNONYC" film traces ex-Beatle's New York years

NEW YORK (Reuters) - So much has been told about the Beatles that director Michael Epstein knew he needed to say something different in his documentary of John Lennon, which premiered this past weekend at the New York Film Festival.

Yoko Ono gestures as she unveils the "John Lennon: The New York City Years" exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Annex in New York May 11, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

The film, “LENNONYC,” recounts the ex-Beatle’s decade in the United States as the tale of an immigrant coming to America and the importance of New York City to the musician and his wife, Yoko Ono.

Using previously unreleased audio tapes and outtakes made during studio recording sessions, the movie traces Lennon’s life from his move to Greenwich Village in 1971 to his murder outside his Upper West Side apartment building in 1980.

For Lennon, New York offered an escape from Britain, where he felt the media was harsh to him and to Ono, the movie recounts. New York gave him the freedom to live a more ordinary life, able to dine out or walk in his beloved Central Park without being hassled by fans or press.

“John’s is an immigrant story,” Epstein said at a press screening. It serves as a “reminder” of what coming to America means, especially amid the current public debate over illegal immigration, he said.

“We don’t share a common past,” Epstein said. “What we share is a common vision for the future, at our best.”

The documentary traces Lennon’s anti-war activism, efforts by the U.S. government to deport him, the release of his albums “Mind Games” and “Double Fantasy” and his famed “lost weekend” when he left home and fell into heavy, destructive drinking.


The audio tapes provide some of the lightest and most moving moments in the film, with Lennon placing a takeout order for sushi and listening to his young son Sean singing lyrics from the Beatles’ hit “With a Little Help for My Friends.”

Lennon eventually found peace when he left the music scene to raise his son, Epstein said.

“It’s in that quiet, domestic place where he builds his own family, that he finds his redemption,” he said.

Sean Lennon was 5 years-old when his father was murdered by Mark David Chapman, whose name is not mentioned in the film.

“I didn’t think Chapman’s motivation colours John’s life or gives it meaning,” the director said. “It doesn’t bring me closer to his art.”

Chapman is serving 20 years to life in prison and was recently denied parole for a sixth time.

“LENNONYC” was produced in part by the public television series American Masters and is scheduled to be shown on PBS stations on November 22. It will be shown in Central Park as well, in a free public screening on October 9, which would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday.

Interviewed on film are Ono, members of the Elephant’s Memory band that played with Lennon and Ono, musician Elton John, talk show host Dick Cavett and photographer Bob Gruen, who took some of the most iconic pictures of Lennon.

There are no interviews with surviving Beatles Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr, nor with Lennon’s sons Julian or Sean. Interviews such as one with McCartney would have tilted the film towards the relationship between Lennon and McCartney, Epstein said, adding, “I wanted this to be about John.”