When “LENNONYC” premieres Monday on PBS, viewers will see what filmmakers hope is a look at the John Lennon his friends knew. That’s what Michael Epstein, who was the documentary’s writer-director and also shares producing credits with Jessica Levin and Susan Lacey, says was the idea behind film’s creation.
“For me, the impetus really came from the (1998) Lennon box set the (John Lennon) Anthology. It was the Spector recordings that (Yoko) had on disc 3 of them just screaming at each other. And I thought, ‘This is just fascinating.’ In the Dakota, there was the ‘Little Help From My Friends’ (recording with Sean).
“And then you started to dig around and you realize there was a lot of other audio that had been unreleased that was on the internet, some of which Elliot Mintz had released for broadcast on ‘The Lost Lennon Tapes.’ And my sense was that there was a hidden Lennon, that there was a Lennon that unless you were friends with him, which I was not, you really didn’t get to know. And you certainly hadn’t gotten to know him through the prior films and that you couldn’t know how extensive the biographies were.”
He says despite the fact the film is favorable toward Yoko Ono, she had no editorial control over the film. “Not informally, and certainly not contractually, which was quite the opposite. She did not have a say. She did not have a final cut. We couldn’t defame her. We couldn’t use footage out of context, but that’s not different than any agreement you have with any subject,” he says.
“She never said, ‘You can’t interview May (Pang) or you can’t do L.A. or this how I want the interview with Roy Cicala to go. But Susan Lacey, ‘American Masters’ and PBS did have an agreement with Yoko that gave us access to the archives and allowed us to license the songs. We wanted Yoko to be a participant. We wanted her to be a partner in it, but that stopped at the point of editorial (control),” he says.
The film includes audio and video revealed for the first time. “We have wonderful home movies that I hadn’t seen in complete form before. There were snippets of them in ‘Imagine,’ and ‘The U.S. Vs. John Lennon’ and on YouTube, but that stuff of them on the Staten Island Ferry with the World Trade Center in the background … I’d seen moments of that footage, but not all of it.”
To transition to the “Walls and Bridges” album, they used clips from Lennon’s radio appearance with Dennis Elsas, which Epstein says surprised Yoko seeing the film at a private screening. “Yoko had never heard it. She almost made us stop. She said, ‘Who is that? What is this?’”
And at least some of the rare stuff in the film was found online. “It was the internet where we found the complete Thanksgiving ’79 of John drawing with Sean,” where “John (is) simply being a dad.”
“It was that recording that set the tone for me. It was made me realize the voice of the film. When I heard that, I thought, ‘That’s different. That’s a window into John we don’t have yet.”
Epstein acknowledges that “LENNONYC” takes a different slant on May Pang’s relationship with Lennon. “May has her version of that relationship. I will only say that it was not supported by anybody else who was there,” he says. “And certainly the portrait we paint is certainly not influenced by Yoko. Yoko did not comment on that at all.”
He says what’s in the film is backed up by the podcasts available through iTunes or the ‘American Masters’ website. “You can go to the podcasts and listen to their unedited interviews. I urge listeners to go and listen to what they have to say. And their portrait is dramatically different. And they love John. They’re not Albert Goldman or out to trash him. I can’t interview John. None of us can. I can only interview the people who were around at the time.”
He cites Jim Keltner’s comment that every time Lennon got drunk, he would scream Yoko’s name. “If you go and listen to Keltner’s unedited interview, it was pretty clear where John’s head was at. And though I love John Lennon and his music, I’m not sure the ‘lost weekend’ was the most creative period that he had.
“I love John Lennon because of the honesty he brought to his music,” Epstein explains. “He’s different than McCartney that he writes very personally and directly. And how brave he is and how honest he is is what connect many people to him.
“You can’t look at something like ‘Yer Blues’ or ‘Cold Turkey’ or ‘In My Life’ and say that’s real and honest and then look at ‘Woman’ or ‘Watching the Wheels’ and say that’s just myth. You can’t look at ‘Oh, Yoko’ or all of the songs that he wrote and say, ‘Those don’t really count.’ Those are part of the documentary evidence of where John was at. You can’t cherry pick how you read the artist to conform to a narrative that you want to tell. You have to look at the total of it and say what picture does that paint? And the picture that John’s life and, in particular, John’s art paint is a deep profound love, commitment, need for his relationship for Yoko. And that was the guiding principle once we started making the film and once we started talking to people who were really present, who were really there.
“I have to stick with the source material as I find it, not as I want to create it or interpret it,” he says.
While Yoko is interviewed throughout the film, his sons Sean Lennon or Julian Lennon are heard very little.
“I was very very reluctant to ask Sean because he was effectively four. He had just turned five. His father had been murdered. How can you go back and ask somebody about when they were three or four years old? It struck me as an obscene intrusion in somebody’s life.”
He noted that John had wanted that time as private. “That was not a public moment for him. He wanted the quiet family life. Just because he was a musician doesn’t mean he can’t have it and I wanted to continue to respect that.”
He says Julian was also asked to contribute. “(Julian) just said ‘I’ve gone through this enough.’ And I thought, ‘Yeah, you have.’”
He says the only person who turned them down that he would have liked to interview was Ringo Starr. “He said he would be very happy to talk with us, but he just didn’t remember the ’70s, so he had nothing really to say. It seemed like a very Ringo comment.”
Why are there no extras on the DVD? Epstein said it was because of a lack of time. “We only started the process really, truly in March. The first interview of Elton John in February, but the vast majority were in March and April and I had to finish it in August. And so there wasn’t the time, and the truth is, not even the money, to really put together a lot of DVD extras that you would want. The thing was literally out of the soup, as they say, by the time it premiered at the New York Film Festival. Similarly, to try and get the DVD in mass production in time for the broadcast on Monday, there just wasn’t the opportunity to sit on the film for a year and develop the kind of extras you would want. There’s a longer window and more opportunity for the Blu-ray, so that the Blu-ray (coming in January) has more of that.”
But he says the podcasts comprise the extras. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do the podcasts to give people those extras for free. And it was also to give people that naked sense of process.”
“If there are really lingering questions for people (about the film), I urge them to go back to the podcasts and make decisions themselves. Because what we tried to do was put it all out there and not hide anything.”
He said the film, which focuses on his later life, wasn’t done to celebrate the anniversary of his death, but more to remember his birthday.
“It’s important that John still matters. It’s important that he still seem immediate and present in our lives.”
(“LENNONYC” premieres Monday night on PBS. Check your local listings for time.)
- The American Masters website page on the film.
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