Imagine the fan ire that Cynthia Lennon would have faced if she had claimed cowriting credit on "She Loves You" because she was John Lennon's wife and, you know, loved him. Something astonishingly similar actually is happening with respect to the ex-Beatle's legacy. Yoko Ono is conducting a stealth campaign to recast the legend's post-Fab career in her own image.
Directed by Michael Epstein and now playing on Netflix, John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky is the latest vehicle for Ono's revisionism. The streamer's promo text describes it as "the story behind John Lennon and Yoko Ono's seminal 1971 album, Imagine." See what she just did there?
Is Mind Games a Lennon and Ono album? Of course not. Walls and Bridges? Rock 'N' Roll? Nope. So since when is Imagine?
Since June 14, 2017. That's when David Israelite, president and CEO of the National Music Publishers Association, recommended Ono be credited as cowriter of "Imagine" — the song. Announcing this, he played a snippet from a BBC radio interview the ex-Beatle did to promote the release of 1980's Double Fantasy. Lennon praised Ono for inspiring the "lyric and content" of his anthem.
How did the 37-year-old recording fall into Israelite's lap? Has the proposed credit been ratified? When he made that announcement, Israelite also declared "Imagine" the "song of the century." Since Ono employs his company to manage rights to it, isn't that a conflict of interest? I reached out to NMPA, but, as of press time, no one responded to my queries.
The new film is the most brazen move yet in the chess game that Ono is playing with music history. The selection of Netflix is no accident. Streaming is millennials' preferred mode of viewing. Younger audiences are less likely to be sufficiently familiar with Beatles lore to detect where the movie diverges from the record.
The picture starts as a straightforward doc, and it's a real treat to see so much fresh footage from the era. Most of it was shot at Tittenhurst Park, Lennon's Georgian mansion equipped with a home studio.
Of particular interest are scenes of Lennon conferring with George Harrison. He's surprisingly humble as he plays the opening of "How" ("I don't know if it's any good") and gratified when Harrison solves a problem with the piece. Equally fascinating are exchanges between Lennon and producer Phil Spector. If you're a fan of the man, it's a bittersweet blast to see him so funny, full of ideas and unbelievably young.
Most of the doc's talking heads, however, are a cherry-picked gaggle of Ono cronies, such as John Dunbar, owner of the gallery where she met Lennon; longtime representative Elliot Mintz; activist Tariq Ali; and personal assistant Dan Richter. Something odd happens halfway through: Progressively less screen time is devoted to the making of Imagine and more to documenting unrelated Ono music and art projects. The heads talk increasingly about her influence on Lennon's work. "The fact that John and I met," she declares, "was to do this song."
I have zero idea why Ono would need to rewrite history. Not for money. Ironically, her artistic reputation has been burnished recently by recognition from institutions as august as the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Institution.
Nonetheless, she's clearly intent on getting ever more credit for the work Lennon did during their time together. Imagine wanting the spotlight on yourself and off your martyred partner. Considering the way Ono treated Lennon's first son, apparently it's easy if you try.