Of all the important musicians in the last century, it’s pretty easy to see that John Lennon stands out for his influence on music, pop culture, and society in general. Along with Lennon himself, his music and activism, along with their effects on the world, have been well documented in countless short and feature-length documentaries. This November, American Masters – “an ongoing series of award-winning primetime specials examining the lives, works, and creative processes of our most outstanding cultural artists” – takes on the subject of John Lennon and his time in New York City. The series has featured Andy Warhol, Charlie Chaplin, and Paul Simon, among others.

This Lennon profile is special in that it’s not a documentary about his entire life, but as the title suggests, focuses on his time in New York City with Yoko Ono, using numerous interviews with friends and bandmates along with never before-released in-studio recordings of Lennon. This is a documentary that assumes you already know quite a bit about Lennon and know why his time in New York is important and then goes on to both explain why this is true and give you a behind the scenes look at his life at this time. Without glossing over any of the rough patches (including the hiatus John and Yoko too and his subsequent time in Los Angeles), writer and director Michael Epstein gives audiences a true portrait of the legendary musician and activist as seen through the eyes of those around him (including Yoko Ono) and captured in in-studio recording sessions.

The film is thoroughly engaging, though not always structurally clear. Epstein begins with the story of Lennon as an immigrant, looking to make New York City his home though the United States government (the Nixon administration to be more specific) is seeking to get him deported for his various activist causes. This is an intriguing theme, and we’re privy to many of those around him discussing being followed and the FBI keeping records on them, but this storyline builds quickly and then goes on the backburner for over an hour before reappearing briefly at the very end. It’s an incredible part of Lennon’s story and well presented, but Epstein plays up Lennon’s immigration status so much in the opening that I always felt like I was waiting for that piece of the story to come back into play. The best parts of the film are the clips of Lennon in the studio and those around him discussing his studio style. Listening to Lennon in the studio is even more fascinating than you might suspect.

The portion of the film (near the end) that deals with John’s time after mending ties with Yoko, the birth of his son Sean, and the work on his last album is especially touching. As with any Lennon documentary, the ending left me wishing that there was a documentary about some alternate universe where Lennon was still alive so that the ending didn’t have to be so sad. You can catch this documentary on PBS on November 22nd or on DVD on the 23rd (information below).

For more information, visit the PBS American Masters site
To purchase LennoNYC, visit Amazon

Zach’s Rating: B
Perfect For: Anyone interested in seeing behind the scenes of John and Yoko’s relationship with New York (and each other)
Stay Away if: You’ve already seen every other John Lennon documentary

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