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Q&A with Michael Epstein, Director of the John Lennon + Yoko Ono Documentary ‘Above Us Only Sky’
Having helmed the excellent 2010 Lennon NYC documentary (stylized LennoNYC), director Michael Epstein’s next immersion into the world, life, times and legacy of John Lennon was chronicling John’s rich creative adventures recording 1971’s Imagine album. The resulting documentary, 2018’s Above Us Only Sky, lends a heretofore unseen window into the creative process, offering expansive and revelatory footage of the session themselves at Ascot Studios and John and Yoko’s activities away from the studio during that period of time.
We spoke to Epstein, who shared the back story behind the documentary.
Rock Cellar: Before getting ready to do the project what was the story you imagined you would tell, and through the process of working on the documentary how did that story change?
Michael Epstein: Interesting question. I had previously made Lennon NYC for the PBS series American Masters, which was about John’s decade in New York from the end of ’71 when he moved to Greenwich Village to when he was murdered in December of ‘80.
That film posited why he moved to New York and why he stayed here and why New York was such an important place to him. It was my notion that England, and London in particular, became untenable for John and Yoko. Both the breakup of the Beatles and the desire to be John Lennon, not Beatle John, but also the fact that he and Yoko were so devoted to each other, not just personally but artistically.
And the kind of vitriol and hate and anger that was not just directed at Yoko but at both of them made London and England untenable. I had that notion, so I think in many ways Above Us Only Sky is a kind of prequel, as it were. It’s this remarkable, amazing gap year in John’s life where he composes probably his important song as a solo artist, “Imagine,” and it’s a transition year where he’s trying to break permanently from the Beatles.
He sort of burns the house down with Plastic Ono Band and then he’s trying to rebuild himself as an artist with the Imagine LP. So I had always viewed Tittenhurst Park, where John and Yoko lived in the country, as a refuge, a place where they could sort of escape and get some quiet.
I think that’s one of the reason he built Ascot Sound, which was one of the first home Studios anywhere — I think George’s (Harrison) was first. I think Tittenhurst just became untenable for him. John and Yoko were of the world and they wanted to be in the world and Tittenhurst was removed from everything.
It was idyllic; it was beautiful. But he had to be in the middle of everything, so I kind of saw the arc of the story being that and finally landing in New York City.
The surprises were the material that I was given to work with. I was gobsmacked when I sat down the first day when given a hard drive of just the most unimaginable footage of John and George Harrison and Klaus (Voormann) and Alan White and Yoko; it was just endless. I was like, (laughs) “Where has this stuff been for 45 or 50 years?”
Rock Cellar: How many hours of footage were you provided of those sessions?
Michael Epstein: It’s hard to say. I never rally sat down and did an official count, but dozens and dozens and dozens of hours of material, much of which has never been seen before. I don’t think it was nefarious why that footage hadn’t been released since then; there was just no good reason, oddly enough, for it to come out. They shot all of this material with the radical notion of making a film to accompany the release of the Imagine album. The idea was that every song would have a sort of an interesting avant-garde film to accompany. This was Yoko’s idea entirely; this was Yoko’s project. So they just shot everything figuring “this would be interesting if we do this with the camera” or “this will be interesting if we do this.” And then they made the Imagine film in ’72 and couldn’t really get distribution for it so it wasn’t seen much.
And then when John was killed, I think in ’86 Andrew Solt made the Imagine film but that covered all of John’s life. Andrew had to traverse a lot in that film, so bits and pieces of it showed up there
So certainly of no fault of his own, he had a lot of ground to cover. You can’t spend all that time in Tittenhurst. But he was the first person to show us John’s amazing exchange with Curt Claudio. Then in 2000, Yoko released Gimme Some Truth, which stuck exclusively into the studio. So when I got all this footage I was like, “Holy shit!” That was the first real moment for me when John was demonstrating the chord progression for “How?” to George and I was like, “What! How as that footage never shown before.” (laughs)
Rock Cellar: From an aesthetic standpoint, it was wonderful to use the dual-frame device to bring the viewer deeper into the creative process of recording.
Michael Epstein: That was done because the film was partially shot with a different aspect ratio. It was shot 4:3 and we now have a widescreen, so what ends up happening when you take the material and fill the screen, you end up cutting off the top and the bottom of it. Using the duel frame was very effective.
My feeling with this and has always been is I miss John, and I think we all do. I think the great desire is for him to be in our lives somehow in some way. You can go back and visit the music, which we all do endlessly, but given the opportunity to be in the room with him is impossible — but with this film you can kind of time travel.
And that’s what I hope the film allows you to do, just to spend some time with John. Not John where he is being interviewed but somebody or where he is performing or where he is even all that conscious of the camera. At some point, the way that a camera is used, as Albert Maysles talked about it, become furniture.
Rock Cellar: What does your documentary tell us about John Lennon the musician and person?
Michael Epstein: He was really witty and super funny. I think he was very exacting about his music but also very loose. He strikes me as a somewhat impatient guy. He’s profoundly devoted to Yoko even in the quiet moments where they don’t know that there’s a camera on them or don’t remember that there’s a camera on them. You can see him as just a regular guy, a human. I think that was not a revelation but a confirmation.
Of all of the rock stars or poets or artists, however you want to think of him, John was unique in that he wrote primarily about his own emotions and he was not just confessional but almost kind of raw and naked. What I’ve always fond so beguiling and appealing about that is — I have nothing in common with John. I never met him and I don’t pretend to have any intimacy. I didn’t grow up in Liverpool and I’ve never been a Beatle. (Iaughs) I didn’t lose my mother as a teenager. There’s a whole laundry list of differences.
And yet there’s something about John’s music that profoundly moves me and I think millions and millions of other fans because it makes my own struggles or my own pain okay.
What you see in the footage is what you hope to see, which is just a regular person and I think that’s most profound in the way that he approached and spoke to Curt Claudio.
Rock Cellar: John’s encounter with Curt Claudio, the troubled fan who stalks him and shows up at his door is both heartbreaking to watch and also kind of chilling as well.
Michael Epstein: That’s perfectly said.
Rock Cellar: Given his assassination at the hands of a deranged madman less than ten years later. What’s your take on that footage?
Michael Epstein: First of all. As Dan Richter, John’s assistant at the time has said, there was real heart and empathy in the man. I think he cared. I think the footage with John speaking to Curt Claudio is both profoundly moving and really haunting. It’s moving in that it gives us the truest John.
He did not have to say the things he said to Curt and he did not have to take the time that he did and he did not have to invite him into his home. The camera was not running when they told John Curt was back and on the grounds. John was like, “Let’s go say hi, let’s go figure out what’s wrong.” The story about Curt is he kept writing John and kept sending letters to Tittenhurst. John’s assistant, Dan Richter, and Diana would get those letters. They’d get those letter every day. Dan was like, “I’m worried; this is not a good thing.”
Rock Cellar: Were they threatening letters?
Michael Epstein: He believed that John was speaking to him and that sometimes he believed he was John. It really was an echo of what was to come in 1980, as you said.
You know, look, it’s the dark side of fandom. It’s the notion that we don’t acknowledge that Julian (Lennon) hints at in the film, which is it stops being your life and it becomes theirs and you aren’t allowed to fall in love with the woman who fills you up and completes you and frankly, who I believe, saved him.
You’re not allowed to do anything else and frankly you’re not allowed to be anything else other than what we demand and expect you to be, and I think that any number of celebrities will tell you that they have that experience.
Rock Cellar: In your contemporary interviews, did you speak further about the backstory of Curt Claudio and did you receive any further insight into what went on during that encounter?
Michael Epstein: Well, just Diana and Dan who basically ran John and Yoko’s office at Tittenhurst. They were worried, and they felt John was great for spending time with Curt. What I tried to do with the film was give you as much of that footage as I possibly could. I mean, I didn’t want to include what you had already seen in Andrew Solt’s film, Imagine, and so we kind of cut around what was previously in the public domain. Every piece of that footage is now included in the extras on the DVD. Even to the point where I put the stuff in behind the car, that crazy shot, I don’t know what the camera person was doing at that moment. (laughs) But I was like screw it, he’s still talking, let’s go for it.
Rock Cellar: We’ve never heard of an instance where Curt Claudio bothered John again, so his conversation seemed to have worked.
Michael Epstein: Yes. I think that’s right. I think John sated whatever need he had. He fed him and brought him into his home and took care of him. I think Curt went back home and the spell kind of broke.
Rock Cellar: What were the greatest challenges you faced working on the documentary?
Michael Epstein: There weren’t that many. It was very much a labor of love. I guess the biggest challenge was time. I started working on it in May of 2018 and it was commissioned by Channel Four in the UK. They wanted to air it in October, which was not feasible but they broadcast it in December. So it was a very quick turnaround.
Rock Cellar: Too quick?
Michael Epstein: No, I’m like John, you get into the studio and do a couple versions of it, and boom, instant karma baby, send it out to the world. (laughs) I think at some point you can tweak something to death and I’m not sure it gets any better. I think what we tried to do was make something that was very much in John’s voice and raw. It was such a privilege those first couple of days of looking at all of this material, things like Clock, which really floored me.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about Clock, for those that don’t know what it is.
Michael Epstein: For those that don’t know, Clock is an experimental film that John made at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City in the summer of ’71. He put a camera on a tripod and pointed it at a mirror in the St. Regis with a fireplace mantle and a clock was on the mantle and you could see John’s reflection in the mirror. He sat down on a couch for an hour and just futzed around; he forgot the camera was there and answered the phone, played the guitar and talked to everybody. He ran through the music that he loved from his childhood, things like Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers, all that early Hamburg Beatles stuff and even Liverpool. It was amazing footage and included in it was the first draft of “Que Pasa New York,” later known as “New York City.” That was going to be released later that fall.
I don’t think that footage has ever been shown; some of the audio of it has been heard but the footage has never been shown before.
Rock Cellar: Where did the “Oh Yoko” 1969 footage come from?
Michael Epstein: That was ’69. In my travels with Yoko, I’ve stayed out of the ‘60s era. I think it was shot in Bermuda. I can’t tell you for the life of me why they were there in ’69. They went around looking for material that related to the songs that ended up in the Imagine album and found that. A lot of the material that John, Paul and George released early after the breakup of The Beatles was material they had written for or as a Beatle.
So a song like “Jealous Guy” started off as “Child Of Nature” and was tossed aside but the melody stayed. “Gimme Some Truth” and “Oh Yoko” were also written while John was in The Beatles. That’s true for all of these guys, even songs like “I’m Losing You”, which shows up on Double Fantasy, was at least in part written by John while in Los Angeles for “The Lost Weekend.” I mean look, George released “Not Guilty” many years later on an album and that had first been recorded by The Beatles during sessions for The White Album.
Rock Cellar: From the expansive footage you researched, what was the most revelatory footage that didn’t make the cut?
Michael Epstein: That’s a good question. I feel like the film and the DVD gets at the essence of everything we had. We made a concerted effort in 90 minutes to touch on every meaningful aspect of what was going on in their life at that moment; the David Bailey photo shoot footage, all of that stuff. Driving in the car to the Grapefruit book signing. I came away really satisfied, and as a fan quite happy that you could immerse yourself in it.
At least for me, as a director, I didn’t really feel that anything important creatively and emotionally was left on the cutting room floor. I don’t think that at least for this moment in their life, this ten-month block, that there’s gonna be some revelation down the road.
Both in terms of an aesthetic of how we edited the film and even putting the leader in the film, back in those days it was a two-system setup where you recorded audio separate from the film and you can see that, which is why you see the clapperboards in the film, someone is recording the audio and then someone else is recording the film. Well, the film would sometimes run out, the film stock was always shorter than the Nagra audio recorder, but you’d still record the audio. I’d listen to the audio after the film roll had run out and I was like, “okay, we’re just gonna include that and the screen will go black. I don’t care that there’s nothing to look at, just listen.” We endeavored to put every last bit in to give you the feel that you were in the edit room with us looking at the dailies but that you were also in the room with John, just being with him and quietly observing, which is an opportunity to do something that you can’t do.
Rock Cellar: How do the messages/concept and vision of the Imagine album intersect with the political, social and cultural zeitgeist of the time?
Michael Epstein: I think that it was a tough transition year. I think the idealism of the ‘60s that things would comfortably change with “All You Need Is Love” were not coming to bear. I think it was a more radical period. You had Black Panthers, SDS and Snick — the younger generation of civil rights activists led by Stokely Carmichael. Dr. King had been assassinated and Bobby Kennedy had been killed, and John’s response to a lot of that was two-fold.
I think that his songs that were pure him like “Gimme Some Truth” and “I Don’t Want To Be A Soldier”; those strike me as very John and very direct songs. They’re overtly political and “Imagine” is something entirely different. “Imagine” is to my mind very much the melding of John and Yoko. And in my mind it’s primarily a Yoko song. She’s maligned endlessly and profoundly misunderstood.
She’s often sometimes not her best advocate, but Yoko is not a conceptual artist in mind, she’s an instructional artist, and that’s a different kind of a voice and it’s an interesting one. “Imagine” is an instructional song and it asks you to do something that might on the surface seem either ridiculous or ineffectual like “imagine a better world” and the reality is in the depths of that really difficult time, there’s no anchor. And we can really feel it now.
You look at the news right now, whether it’s refugees on the border or children being put in cages, the endless madness of our headlines today of a truly evil person, a child, as our president. You can lose hope and any kind of moral compass and in the depths of that then and now, what you need is a voice that says the very first step of anything else that can happen is to imagine the world you want.
If you can’t do that, you don’t know what to work for, and you can be ridiculed for that.
I think John instinctively understood how important it was and how much you were opening yourself up to ridicule. That’s why you get a song like “Imagine.” Imagine the world you want, and John kind of comes into the song, John’s voice in the song is “You may say I’m a dreamer” which is a kind of recognition. He’s like, “I get it, you may think I have my heads in the clouds and you may think I’m not grounded but you but I’m not the only one.”
If the song was just “imagine, imagine, imagine, imagine” it would be nice but it wouldn’t have the emotional directness that John brings to it. Yoko is the third person, “you imagine” and John is the first person, “you may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one” and that changes the song radically. I think that’s why that song is still so powerful and resonant and why it’s so desperately needed and so easily ridiculed.
In some ways we’ve turned it into this kind of empty muzak kind of song, but it’s a radical song and it should be seen as a radical song by real revolutionaries.
Rock Cellar: Was there an individual either alive or dead, not including John, for whom you would have liked to have interviewed for the film?
Michael Epstein: Well, unfortunately it’s people who have died, like Nicky Hopkins who played piano on the Imagine album and was just brilliant. He was just a genius on the keyboards and supposedly a gentle, kind soul. And in the same way, George. He passed away long before I started on this project. In the back of my mind, always Paul and Ringo, as well, but they kind of keep their distance and I respect that. Phil Spector possibly but he’s such a wack job that I’m not even sure had I interviewed him in ’71 what I would have gotten out of him.
Rock Cellar: Here’s a hypothetical. John Lennon is back on earth for one hour and you have full access to interview him. What would be the main things you lined up ask him?
Michael Epstein: Oh I don’t think I would have asked him any questions, I think I would have just said “thank you.” As an aside, there was an aesthetic decision of Yoko’s, and I only wanted her to come in at the end. I didn’t want to break the spell of the past tense. I wanted you to feel like you were in ’71 so you could have people like Jim Keltner or Klaus or Alan White looking back, but if you saw Yoko today looking back then you wouldn’t be in the moment.
That spell that I had hoped to create would be broken and I didn’t want you to leave ’71. I wanted you to be there with them.
I wish John was with us like we all do but I probably wouldn’t have interviewed him. When Yoko comes in and talks about her childhood and what her war experience was like as a civilian, it’s powerful. I know there was some criticism from some people on social media saying “The Japanese did this and this and this.” But yeah, she was a child. The preeminent experience for war for Yoko was the fire-bombing of Tokyo in March of 1945, which very few people know about or talk about. It was called “Operation Meetinghouse” and it was designed to kill as many civilians as possible.
That bombing campaign killed in less time more civilians than any other bombing campaign of the 20th century. More civilians were killed in Nagasaki or Hiroshima, like 100,000 in a night with napalm and that was Yoko’s experience of way. That’s why peace is so vital to Yoko.
Rock Cellar: What was Yoko’s initial reaction after seeing the documentary?
Michael Epstein: She loved it. My relationship with her is really great. She saw it before we put the IDs for each person interviewed and all she said was, “make sure you identify these people that are interviewed as they’re not gonna know Diana or Dan.” She loved it and she was great.
She’s a remarkable and lovely person; don’t believe the hype.
December 2, 2020