US director Michael Epstein’s latest documentary called John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky was chosen to open the 2019 Fipadoc festival in Biarritz, in the south-west of France Tuesday evening. Lennon and Yoko’s song Imagine from which the film title is drawn is one of the most popular in pop music history.
Even if you don’t remember 1971 when the album and title song Imagine by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band released, even if you don’t know what a hippie looks like, you should find this documentary revealing and moving.
The time-line it follows is the construction of the album and the recording of the songs. However this is not just about pop music history.
Eagle-Rock producer of John and Yoko: Above us only sky, Peter Worsley said that 60 hours of largely hitherto unseen rushes and leftovers belonging to Yoko Ono landed in the director’s lap along with access to all the archives. “Michael [Epstein] had the wonderful task of going through all that and finding huge amounts of very intimate material that had never been seen before. I think it’s a remarkable picture of what life was like in that creative kernel if you like, that John and Yoko were living in while they were recording the album.”
Yoko for John
Epstein’s film is classical in form with real-life archival footage alternating with witness accounts, friends and colleagues and John’s son Julian. It’s about the song’s words, but also about two people who marked that period with their pro-peace activity.
Thanks to the words of those interviewees, the film is kinder towards Lennon’s Japanese-American wife, than many detractors have been over the years.
“Yoko was tremendous,” says producer Peter Worsley. She wanted to be involved at the very beginning. She helped to choose the director. She had worked with Michael Epstein previously on Lennon NYC.
She wanted to have an idea of the direction the film was taking, and after that she let us make the film. She did view it and said it was fine. She didn’t expect to have any level of creative control over it.”
Historian and peace activist, Tariq Ali, who also features in the archival footage, supplies additional understanding of Yoko and context.
“His contribution is very valuable. He was a friend of theirs. He was part of radicalizing John and Yoko and bringing to their attention the broader political elements. But I think he also helped emphasize the amount of racism that Yoko and that the couple faced, and how that gives a broader picture of society in 1971.”
Unlike his 3 fellow ex-Beatles, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Lennon’s fans never saw him with grey hair. He was assassinated in 1980 aged 40. This is therefore not the first film about a man who was a living legend in his time and who, with Yoko Ono, launched a major peace campaign against the Vietnam War.
“Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do, nothing to kill or die for and no religion too imagine all the people living life in peace…”
Among some of the newly revealed footage, one of the most touching, and most tense scenes in the film, is when a very young Vietnam War veteran, fresh from demobilization rehab in California, lands up on their Tittenhurst doorstep. Worsley agrees that the frank and gentle encounter is a striking scene.
“A small section of that has been seen in the Gimme the Truth film. I agree it’s one of the emotional highlights of the film where you see the level of John’s empathy and you understand the strange psycho-dramas that were floating around John and his writing.”
Peace and Love
Julian Lennon’s comment in the film on his father’s song ‘Imagine’ is poignant, “It’s not religious, it’s not political, it’s just humanity and life. …We all actually want what he’s singing about. I think that’s why it’s still such an important song. Because the sad thing is the world is still in a bad way.”
The nub of the film however appears to be the deep bond between, as one of the titles on the album calls him, a Jealous Guy, and his muse, for whom he had an all-consuming love.
“As we investigated the relationship that John had with Yoko, it comes across that John really wanted to be an artist and that’s what Yoko helped bring out in him,” explains Worsley.
Co-produced by Britain’s Channel 4, John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky has already been broadcast in the UK, however Fipadoc is where it’s getting its Continental European première, and A&E in the US is due to programme the film in the spring this year.