Sunday, December 8, 2013

Two Murders of John, Across the Universe, That Changed the World

There’s a cosmic intersection between John Lennon and John F. Kennedy, besides both being named John and both being murdered by guns. I first noticed it during the Paley Center for Media’s documentary festival in 2010. Its October lineup opened with two films about John Lennon: the bio pic Nowhere Boy, and the new American Masters documentary, LENNONYC; and it closed with a new film from cinema verite pioneer Robert Drew, In the Company of JFK, a compilation from four of his extraordinary films about Kennedy, with startling footage from the unprecedented access he was given .

These films were chosen for their subject matter and obvious merits. It was just happenstance that it meant the festival was bookended by two of the most culturally important murders of the 20th century.

Then, on November 22, 2010, on the 47th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, PBS premierd LENNONYC nationally, bringing the two deaths near each other again. It’s as though the universe itself still needs to reconcile the violent, early death of these two icons of the last century who meant so much to so many people.

Words are flying out like
endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
are drifting thorough my open mind
Possessing and caressing me

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world

John, Pre & Post Beatle

The two Lennon films were to honor the 70th anniversary of his birth on October 9, 1940 and acknowledge the 30th anniversary of his death on December 8, 1980. The bio pic Nowhere Boy takes a lot of poetic license, but the Quarrymen who were at the Paley Center screening said that it captured the essence of their teenage years together, rising from a skiffle band to rock & roll. LENNONYC captures the last 10 years of John’s life in New York with Yoko (and Los Angeles without her). The archival material is amazing, with home movies and studio footage you’ve never seen.

In the fictional Nowhere Boy we meet the boy who was abandoned by both his parents when they divorced and was raised by his Aunt Mimi(his mother’s sister). His uncle dies early, and he reconnects with his mother for a few years before she’s hit by a car and dies. He’s on his way to Germany with fellow townsmen Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and you know the rest.

LENNONYC captures John’s story with Yoko, after the band broke up in 1970. It’s a story that is not as well known as the Beatles years. As Rob Salem of the Toronto Star says, it’s about the various John Lennons: “peace-seeking protester; avant-garde artist; philandering party boy; Nixon-designated national threat; beleaguered refugee and blissfully domesticated dad.”

Some of the best moments in LENNONYC are from producers Roy Cicala and Jack Douglas, and guitarist Earl Slick who bring the musician John to life with their stories. They articulate beautifully the sheer talent in John’s music, which is the root of why we all fell in love with him in the first place. What's also striking about the documentary is how much voiceover they use of Lennon himself. It really feels like he's still with us.

And then, on that horrible day in December, 1980, when John and Oko were returning home, a madman shoots John four times in the back. He was pronounced dead 15 minutes later. What a shock. How is it possible that a Beatle is murdered in New York, on his own front doorstep? Our rock stars have died in plane crashes, they’ve died from drugs, but pop culture icons just aren’t murdered in cold blood, are they?

Images of broken light which
dance before me like a million eyes
That call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe

John, on November 22, 1963

Robert Drew’s film A President to Remember: In the Company of JFK draws on footage from four of his early films: Primary; Adventures on the New Frontier; Crisis; and Faces of November. It is an astonishing new work that captures JFK from the Wisconsin primary against Humphrey, through to his state funeral.

What Drew’s film doesn’t touch on is this cosmic coincidence: Wiki tells us that on November 22, 1963, CBS Morning News ran a 5-minute piece about Beatlemania that was sweeping Great Britain. The piece was to be rebroadcast in the evening, but it was canceled because of the assassination. Walter Cronkite then decided to run it on the CBS Evening News on December 10. It lead to a spike in sales of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and 8 weeks later the Beatles were at John F. Kennedy International Airport (which had just been renamed on December 24, 1963).

Kennedy’s assassination still haunts the country. The Lee Harvey Oswald/ Jack Ruby explanation becomes less and less satisfactory, but the country had to move on. Some say The Beatles invading ten weeks later were part of that healing process with their youth and style and new sound.

“Anybody here seen my old friends John”

Let’s imagine John Lennon on February, 7, 1964, arriving at JFK airport with the Beatles, full of excitement in the rush of their gargantuan success at home and number one hit here. Even with the depth of his poetic soul and all his hidden mysticism, he could not have imagined that 46 years later, a documentary about the last nine years of his own life—-which artfully deals with his murder—-would be premiering to an American audience on the date that JFK was assassinated. We will not know their like again. Such is the nature of the journey of souls, across the universe . . .

Sounds of laughter shades of life
are ringing through my open ears
exciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which
shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe

John Lennon on his song “Across the Universe": “It's one of the best lyrics I've written. In fact, it could be the best." Rolling Stone interview 1971

(JL NYC photo ©Bob Gruen. The Quarryman Leslie Kearney 1957©2010 The Quarrymen. Andy Warhol/JL photo in the Bar Louis, Hotel Fauchere, Milford, PA taken by Lance Mannon. JFK images are screen grabs from the Drew film.)