Sep 27, 2010

NYFF: Oh, Yoko!

The American Masters documentary Lennon NYC concerns itself with the Beatle and his life and death in the Big Apple. And with that time of turmoil, to which Lennon happily contributed as an activist and provocateur after leaving an England that was extremely hostile to his wife, Yoko Ono. The doc retraces Lennon's sojourn in this city he loved, his persecution by the FBI, his prickly activism and the music he made.
I remember that my parents blamed her (my dad blamed Linda too) for the demise of the Beatles. Knowing what we know now about bands that endure too much for their own good, perhaps we should be forever grateful to the reviled Beatle wives.
Still, I will confess that I have never liked Ono, and even though the doc, made with her cooperation, puts her in a favorable light, I may empathize more, but I still don't  like her. 
After the Beatles split, it was a very tall order to top the monumental songwriting work Lennon had done as a Beatle, and his solo career was wildly uneven. In my humble opinion, he wrote as many great pop songs (Jealous Guy, Mind Games, Watching The Wheels, actually Oh, Yoko!, Mother), as a lot of really corny duds (Feels Like Starting Over, Imagine - so sue me - Woman, I'm Stepping Out, Nobody Told Me).
There is always music playing in the background in the doc, both by him and by her and I wished there were less talking heads and more moments of music, but it seems clear from the footage that the activist period and his collaborations with his wife were not his shining moment, musically speaking.
Ono allowed the filmmakers a great degree of candor, and the film also dwells on Lennon's spells as a very nasty drunk, and their painful separation, caused by a very humiliating infidelity. This is very interesting, so that nobody thinks that this is the canonization of a very complicated man. But the moment you have the full collaboration of one of the parties involved, the authorized biography syndrome, one wonders about motives. Is she just being honest and willing to show a multifaceted portrait of him, or is she somehow getting back at him, or both? Something to ponder. He comes across as a fascinating, gifted human being, but about her we know nothing, except she was always at his side, inscrutable, a highly polarizing being. They had an intense and very public love and it looks like they championed each other as artists through thick and thin. However, one was a popular music genius and the other one is not a genius. I can understand her as an avant garde artist, but I find it amazing that he insisted in believing in her and trying to foist her upon the world as a pop artist. She was absolutely ludicrous, hitting the bongos once every bar and attempting to sing with the Plastic Ono Band. The experiment simply didn't work. And that's putting it nicely. But that's the ambiguity of avantgardism, it is hard to tell, even for some of the perpetrators, whether they are any good. Sometimes in the name of "ART", anything goes.
The film is best when one can hear Lennon's incredibly nimble wit and witness the force of his charisma and his craftsmanship. His spoken voice is trumpety, mercurial, full of mischief and edge, but I did not fully realize what an gorgeous singing voice he had. His voice was part of the soundtrack of my life since age 3, so I realize now that I kind of took it for granted.
Lennon NYC is also a wistful look at the grungier, rowdier, much more politically fervid NY of yore and parts of it are deeply moving. Look at the abandoned piers on the Hudson river, at the Twin Towers under construction, at the gritty seediness of a town Lennon adored and which adored him back. But the film is also repetitive and conventional and perhaps too enamored of its own subject. All the talking heads are fans. Plus, it really messes up the ending with an unnecessary coda after Lennon's tragic and needless murder.
"Why would anybody want to kill an artist?", Yoko asks, with a deliberate naivete that I find jarring, at the end of the film.  What an ingenue! Ask Stalin, ask Hitler, ask Mao, ask crazies who go into museums and slash paintings with knives, ask the idiot lunatic who killed your husband. This is the kind of simplistic, ready made cliche like "all we are saying is give peace a chance" that drives me bonkers.
Still, for the most part Lennon NYC is a very illuminating film, full of juicy tidbits and great bit players and fascinating archival footage. If you love the Beatles, Lennon and New York it will be very emotionally satisfying. It airs on PBS soon.

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