By Michael Fox
John Lennon and Yoko Ono left England in 1971, a few months after the breakup of his band, and moved to New York. They were seeking a normal life in a teeming melting-pot city, far from England’s notoriously vicious press and provincial public.
Yoko was widely blamed for the demise of the Beatles, and her avant-garde art and music was slammed and dismissed in “revenge.” This was the last straw for Lennon, who had long rebelled against the narrow-mindedness of his countrymen.
It’s well known that Lennon abhorred injustice, but he became furious when people close to him were mistreated. Michael Epstein, the Brooklyn-based director of the fascinating documentary, “LennoNYC,” notes that the musician’s eyes were opened by the Beatles’ Jewish manager.
“We forget how profoundly antisemitic Britain can be,” Epstein says. “I think that larger prejudice in England, which Brian Epstein felt, not only being Jewish but also being gay, was something of what Yoko experienced being Japanese and being a strong woman. I think it’s a very, very regimented and closed society. And John clearly was a very open-minded person with nary a prejudicial bone in his body. You just go through his entire life and you see an open, inquisitive and generous soul.”
In an interesting side note to the Beatles’ saga, the filmmaker reveals that part of Lennon’s vehement dislike for Linda (nee Eastman) McCartney’s family had to do with the fact that her American Jewish father had changed his name from Epstein.
“LennoNYC” premieres Monday, November 22 as part of PBS’ “American Masters” series. The two-hour broadcast roughly coincides with Lennon’s 70th birthday and the 30th anniversary of his death.
The original working-class hero, Lennon became a beacon of inspiration for people at every level of society. Epstein, who’s in his 40s and missed Beatlemania, was one of those middle-class kids who looked up to the outspoken musician.
“When I came of age in suburban Chicago, I didn’t fit in,” Epstein confides in a phone interview. “Music was a great refuge. While I never thought of the Beatles or John in any religious way, John was one of the lights, someone who acted as a kind of guide for me.”
Growing up, Epstein was active in Jewish youth movements. He attended a reform summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wis., and served a term as president of the Chicago Federation of Temple Youth (SIFTY). He developed a strong political conscience, and was arrested his freshman year at the University of Illinois (before transferring to the University of Michigan) for protesting the school’s decision not to divest from apartheid-era South Africa.
“At that point, I almost never took John’s ‘Plastic Ono Band’ off the turntable,” Epstein says with a laugh.
The Emmy and Peabody Award-winning producer, director and writer of PBS documentaries such as “None Without Sin: Miller, Kazan and the Blacklist” and “Irving Berlin: An American Song” is being modest, of course. Epstein’s credits also include Bill Moyers’ 10-part 1996 series, “Genesis: A Living Conversation.”
Lennon’s relationship with Yoko and son Sean (born in 1975) comprises the emotional heart of “LennoNYC.” The dramatic tension derives from the Nixon administration’s concerted effort to deport Lennon, ostensibly because of an old drug charge but in reality because of his performances and appearances in support of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
When Lennon arrived in New York in ’71, he was wooed by activists Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. But soon the most important American Jew in his life was an opera buff with no idea who John and Yoko were – a Sabbath-observant immigration lawyer named Leon Wildes.
“John’s immigration case was the first foray into what became Watergate,” Epstein asserts. “John was really the first attempt by Nixon to use the federal government to keep power.”
Wildes tells great stories, Epstein says, about the FBI not knowing what Shomer Shabbos was and wiretapping without realizing that the attorney wasn’t going to speak with his client-or anyone else-on the phone from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
“John should have by all rights lost that case,” Epstein says. “He should have been deported very quickly. All of the things that brought him joy and happiness at the end of his life, none of those things would have happened if it had not been for Leon Wildes.”
There is, of course, a great deal of music in “LennoNYC,” almost all of it recorded in New York. Lennon’s ill-fated, low-ebb visit to Los Angeles represents an important though downbeat segment, but the film’s pulse is Manhattan.
“New York City is just the right lens, because he arrives in New York, he lives in New York, he wants to stay in New York,” Epstein notes. “John doesn’t fall in love with America the way he falls in love with New York.”
LennonNYC will air nationally on PBS beginning Monday, Nov. 22.
Michael Fox is a film critic living in San Francisco.