I’ve always had the impression of John Lennon as an aloof figure, and I’ve sometimes had difficulty reconciling the give peace a chance persona with the angry young man and his acid tongue. Motorhead’s Lemmy once called him “the asshole of the band,” saying, “if you read his books, he’s not the peace-loving nice guy that you heard about.” That may be partly true (his first wife Cynthia might agree), but it needn’t negate his ideals nor his activism and charity. Lennon was complicated, and probably not an easy person to get close to. On the other hand, he may be the most self-revealing of all the Beatles (literally). Perhaps—as Lennon says in voice-over narration above—his life, like his experimental 8mm films, was “self-edited.”
Though not shot by Lennon himself (and not technically “home movies” as the YouTube uploader describes them), the candid films above and below show a relaxed and playful Lennon at his 31st birthday party on October 9, 1971, goofing off with Yoko and several other well-known figures (the same day, an exhibition of Lennon and Ono’s art opened in Syracuse). Allen Ginsberg, Ringo Starr, and Phil Spector bob in and out of the shaky frame below.
Above, Miles Davis hangs out with the couple and plays basketball with Lennon. Keener eyes than mine may spot other legendary celebrities. Avant-garde filmmaker and onetime Warhol cameraman Jonas Mekas shot the footage, calling it “Happy Birthday to John.” Mekas describes the audio track as “a series of improvised songs, sung by John, Ringo, Yoko Ono, and their friends—not a clean studio recording, but as a birthday singing, free and happy.” In a 2002 interview, he conveyed his impressions of Lennon:
John was very open and curious, a very quick sort of person, who caught on immediately. He did a lot of 8mm filming himself. At the beginning of Happy Birthday John, you will hear him talking about what he was trying to do.