Michael Epstein's documentary LennoNYC captures the decade John Lennon spent in New York City between 1971 and his untimely death in 1981.
Produced by Epstein together with Jessica Levin and Susan Lacy, LennoNYC is a full frontal assault on the senses that weaves never-before-seen archival material, interviews with central figures of the time, with evocative graphic design to document the artist's tumultuous years in Manhattan (plus his “lost weekend” in Los Angeles).
It's a film that one suspects Lennon would like: poetic, political and full of rock and roll.
I met with Epstein at a coffee shop located in our shared Brooklyn neighbourhood to talk about his documentary. LennoNYC first premiered in Central Park on the occasion of what would have been Lennon's 70th birthday. For Epstein, it was both a career and personal highlight. “Part of the reason you become a documentary filmmaker is to make films about people, or places or experiences that you hold dear,” he tells me. “Like millions of people around the world, I deeply admired John as an artist, not just because of what he created, but because of the way he lived his life: messy and ribald and difficult.”
Like many of us, Epstein gravitated towards Lennon's music from a young age but in his case, always looked at John as a New Yorker. “I thought of John the Beatle as a Liverpudlian and in Hamburg, but it seemed natural to me to think about John's life post-Beatles [as being] in New York,” Epstein says. “Then it became an immigrant story, a story about descent, about reinvention and someone seeking refuge from a past life. In that way, John is really an American voice because that's what everybody does in America, whether they are born here or not.”
Lennon's time in the United States coincided with a turbulent period in the nation's political history and the film highlights John's oppositional relationship with Richard Nixon's government. LennoNYC delves further into the Nixon's government's now-infamous attempts to silence Lennon and restrain him from conducting peaceful protests during the time of war. This juncture, between the personal, the political and Lennon's art and music, is one in which Epstein revels. “As well as the music and personal stories with John and Yoko there was John's rediscovery of humanity, when he and Yoko have Sean, when he could retreat from being a Beatle. There was also the political, as it was related to John and Yoko,” Epstein says; “The politics of America and the struggle over what kind of country [America] was going to be.”
As Epstein sees it, “John's story, at least how it related to Nixon and his immigration policies, really became the beginning of Watergate. A measure of American freedom is the tolerance of dissent. Nixon tried to criminalise dissent, and he tried to do that with John Lennon. In telling John's story in New York, I was able to tell not just John's story but also tell an important part of American history.” Of note is that despite Lennon's ongoing battle to defy deportation orders and stay in the country, he never became an American citizen.
While Epstein had been a dedicated fan of Lennon long before production began, he says he was thrilled to discover “little surprises along the way and great moments of joy”. He names talking to people like Jack Douglas, the producer of Double Fantasy, as one such highlight. “He and John had been friends since Imagine because he'd been an assistant engineer on that project. He'd known John through the '70s through Record Plant [studios].” Another unexpected delight was legendary engineer, Roy Cicala, who Epstein had never thought of interviewing. Epstein pauses, smiles and then says a major highlight of the film was “forging a relationship with Yoko, which is crazy”.
The participation of Ono in LennoNYC was pivotal and it was producer Lacy's role as creator and executive producer of PBS series American Masters that enabled Epstein to make contact. “[American Masters has a] long legacy of doing right by its subjects,” he says. “The film would never have happened without Susan Lacy. It was Susan and American Masters who approached Yoko and told her that they wanted to honour John.”
Epstein's eyes glimmer as he recalls his first moment with Ono. “Going to the Dakota with Susan to meet Yoko for the first time and tell her what we wanted to do was crazy,” he says now. “I had the notion we were going to be at Studio One, on the first floor of the Dakota, but we went up in the elevator and there we were, in their apartment.”
He admits that there has been talk about how Yoko had to be in control. It is an allegation he staunchly denies. “The deal was always the same. Susan never would have gone forward if Yoko had editorial control. It was very clear from the beginning. Yoko could always have input, in the same way that any estate or any subject has input on any creative endeavour. If you've gotten something demonstrably wrong, and she tells you the facts are not right, and you can't prove that they are right through a primary source, then you have to change it to make it accurate. That's all Yoko ever asked — that we get the story right, and that's all we ever wanted from her.”
Ono gave the team access to her archive. “Yoko was great,” Epstein continues. “She saw the film in a couple of its rough forms, the way we would with anyone, because we wanted her input. She didn't ask us to change anything in the film. She made good suggestions, like Roy Cicala. I took Yoko's advice. She didn't give us a list of questions and she didn't tell Roy what he should say. She simply made the handshake to someone who was important to John, during that period. That was the dynamic we had with Yoko.”
Epstein says he hopes that those of us who see his film are able to see both Lennon and Ono in a new light. “I hope that people don't just get a better appreciation of John, but get a better appreciation of Yoko as a human being and artist,” he says. “Frankly, I don't think you can really understand John, without fully appreciating his partnership, both personally and artistically, with Yoko.” He adds, “I want you to learn something more about John, to see the last decade of his life thorough his eyes, as he saw it, talked about and experienced it.
“John starts off a fallen hero and then redeems himself, by laying everything bare. By not pretending that he's better or that he's perfect, or has any answers. He only has answers for himself. He makes it okay to be different, to want to say something, to express yourself artistically, romantically and in the pubic sphere. You get the sense that today John would have a hundred handlers and he'd tell them to sod off!”
Epstein likens his hero's short life to reading a book. “You get to the middle of the book, you turn the page, and you realise that somebody's ripped out a couple of hundred pages. You think, this can't be the end, where's the second half of this novel?”
LennoNYC doesn't miraculously add length to the narrative of John Lennon's life but it does paint it in a new hue.