The period surrounding John Lennon's second proper solo album, Imagine, was one of the most creative times in his life. Freed from the pressures and expectations of the Beatles, and with his wife Yoko Ono challenging him mentally as well as artistically, it is no wonder he came up with some of his best material. Lennon also had a penchant for filming everything, offering fans an intimate look at his life few other artists of his stature (or any stature, really) would ever allow the public to see.
Fans caught a glimpse of these films in the original Imagine movie and, later, in the excellent Gimme Some Truth documentary about the making of that album. While one would think there would be nothing left of merit, that isn't the case, as there is much to be seen in the excellent new documentary John & Yoko - Above Us Only Sky.
The documentary supplements those previous films, as well as the expanded Imagine CD box set from last year and the Imagine John Yoko coffee table book, also released last year. It compiles archival footage, much of which has never been seen before, along with new interviews with Ono, Julian Lennon, Jack Douglas and Imagine musicians Klaus Voorman and Alan White, among others. The interviews with Julian Lennon are particularly poignant, as he seems forgiving of his complicated relationship with his father. We also see home movies of Julian and John at Lennon's home Tittenhurst Park as well as Julian with some unidentified children on the grounds.
Much is made of the relationship between John and Yoko and the often vicious, racist backlash she faced for "breaking up the Beatles" or for "taking John away" or for simply being a foreigner. While many sources try to downplay her importance to Lennon's creative process, Above Us Only Sky shows the pair truly collaborating on lyrics and song ideas. We also see a still photo with John playing guitar while Yoko works out lyrical ideas. This is not to suggest she wrote all the lyrics to the Imagine album as that is not the case, but John clearly valued her as a creative partner and viewed her as an equal. To further this point, an audio clip from a 1980 interview has John stating that Yoko should receive partial credit for the song "Imagine," something that has since been changed in the writing credits. Revisionist history? Perhaps. But the man himself is on record stating it should be so.
There is also a fair amount of unreleased footage. We see George Harrison working with Lennon in the studio and an unsure Lennon asking if "How" was any good. Lennon's impatience is also highlighted, as many of the musicians stated that when he brought in a new piece, he expected them to know it yesterday. In addition, we see footage from Lennon's famed Clock movie, where a camera was placed in a New York hotel room while Lennon plays songs on an acoustic guitar and answers the phone. A highlight from here is a still-in-progress version of "New York City".
While Lennon moved to Tittenhurst park to get away from London and the Beatles and Apple and the pressure, it was creatively stifling, particularly for Ono. While Lennon had a studio at his house, Ono, born in Japan but basically a New Yorker, missed the creative bustle of the city. So the pair moved, never to return to England. There is footage from the pair's early days in New York, including discussion about their "War Is Over - If You Want It" billboard campaign.
The documentary is presented in 1080i High Definition 16:9 and looks great. The archival footage looks excellent as well, especially given its age. Audio options include LPCM Stereo and DTS-HS Master Audio. There are a number of bonus features included as well, including video with a raw studio mix of 'How Do You Sleep?" and a great home movie of "Oh Yoko!" shot in the Bahamas in 1969.
John Lennon was a complicated man of many emotions. He could show great empathy, as he did when talking to shell shocked Vietnam War veteran Curt Claudio - extended footage of which is included here - or he could have a quick temper when working or dealing with engineers. The documentary does a good job of showing all aspects of his character. It also shows his deep relationship with Ono, one that was not only romantic, but also creative. It is fascinating to be able to see such a giant of the music industry working at or near the peak of his abilities. Lennon lived a very public life and in John & Yoko - Above Us Only Sky, we are allowed to share in it.