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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
When I'm Sixty-Four Plus Six
by Donald Levit

To mark his birth -and death-days, this autumn there will be John Lennon memorials worldwide and at Central Park’s Strawberry Fields-International Garden of Peace. Nowhere Boy will dramatize his music beginnings in 1950s working-class Liverpool. The mayor and the widow have announced that, sandwiched between the New York Film Festival world- and the PBS American Masters U.S. television-premičres, LennonNYC will be shown free of charge in that park.

Never-before released home movies; studio footage and new recording tracks, edited-to-HD concert sequences and outtakes; interviews with friends and associates, include those speaking for the first time like lead guitarist Earl Slick, and two unique candid sessions with Yoko Ono; TV program and network news appearances, graphic artwork, plus more, added up to a wealth of material needing an organizing principle to be reduced to a hundred fifteen minutes.

Humorous Ringo “didn’t remember the ‘70s,” and polite Paul declined. But director/writer/co-producer Michael Epstein elected not to use material from Liverpool, Hamburg and London, anyway, or even to mention the murderer. For parameters, he disclosed to the press at NYFF, he chose to zero in, not on the already documented Beatlemania years but, rather, on the American odyssey of Yoko, househusbandry with Sean, the return with Double Fantasy; the eighteen-month “lost weekend” of alcoholic Left Coast exile; the political activism, consequent FBI and INS harassment and deportation efforts; and, at the heart of it all, the love affair with a New York City where he had the freedom to find himself as an individual who could buy his own clothes and groceries, ride in a taxi, stroll with his wife.

Lennon met Tokyo-raised New York Fluxus avant-garde conceptual artist Ono in London, and following his divorce married her in Gibraltar -- and changed his middle name to Ono -- and the honeymooners held their first Bed-in for Peace in Amsterdam. Unable to find personal peace, however, in a U.K. whose negative media even made unforgivable comments about her looks, they immigrated to New York like millions before yearning to breathe free.

From their first digs on Bank Street in a 1970s Greenwich Village of bohemians, radicals, artists and oddballs, to the exclusive Dakota, the celebrity immigrant-refugees identified with the City; the witty irreverent ex-Fab Four quipped during his legal battle to stay on that it would be fine if he were banned from Ohio, instead.

A dual, essential corollary of their residence was a fateful relationship with Abbie Hoffman. First, it was at that Yippie founder’s pad that, angry about election returns, he bedded another woman in front of his wife. Thrown out of their home, he made music with her former assistant May Pang and real music with musicians in Southern California, where initial exhilaration lapsed into self-destructive drinking and “making a public ass of himself.” Only through the intercession of worried friends was Yoko persuaded to accept him back.

The second corollary is in the increasingly political nature of the public stance and performances. There had been such concerns before, as in the giving back of his MBE in protest over Biafra and Vietnam. But, noting the crowds the couple drew and the immediate effects of his mere presence, Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis of the Chicago Eight-then-Seven -- a fourth, Tom Hayden, is among the interviewees -- drew them further into the Movement. This activism would lead to the Nixon administration’s surveillance and attempt to throw him out of the country for a previous marijuana conviction of the sort that apparently did not affect other musicians.

Deportation orders were overturned, permanent residence status granted, and Sean born on October 9, 1975, his father’s thirty-fifth birthday. Epstein says that he does not buy into his subject’s abandoned childhood explanation, for Aunt Mimi Smith was loving and Mum Julia lived nearby; but in any case Lennon dropped out to be the fond bread-baking househusband father for Sean that he himself had never had and had not been for first-marriage Julian.

Following five years of seclusion so enveloping that the Variety subscription was canceled, the couple signed with David Geffen’s new company and had just recorded and released Double Fantasy when the trajectory ended so suddenly for the man but not his legacy. Some see a rich man, others a child who did not grow up, others a free spirit; Lennon remarks on now making “MOR, middle of the road” music for-forty-year-olds like himself and going “MOR to the bank”; Epstein finds the greatest contribution in feminist attitudes.

Even though talking heads are too numerous near the end, LennonNYC manages coherence and development within a great amount of material, much of it revealed for the first time, in tribute to one of the most influential cultural figures of the modern era.

(Released by PBS; not rated by MPAA.)

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