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 above. Below, Miles Davis hangs out with the couple and plays basketball with Lennon. Andy Warhol makes a brief appearance at 4:42. 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.
The scene shifts above at 6:22 to Madison Square Garden in 1972, where the Lennons put on a concert called “One to One” at the behest of friend Geraldo Rivera. The concert raised funds for Willowbrook, a Staten Island facility for children with mental disabilities, where Rivera documented terrible conditions and abuse. We see Greenwich Village band Elephant’s Memory, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder (on drums, vocals, and keyboards), and, of course, Lennon and Ono. (See their full performance below in high-quality film with audio.) The Beatles Bible informs us that the event raised more than 1.5 million dollars for Willowbrook and that Lennon himself bought $60,000 worth of tickets, “which he gave away to fundraising volunteers.” It was Lennon’s first U.S. concert since the Beatles played Candlestick Park in 1966. He told NME afterward that the gig was “the best music I enjoyed playing since the Cavern or even Hamburg… It was just the same kinda feeling when the Beatles used to really get into it.” The benefit consisted of two performances, a matinee and an evening show. The matinee performances were later released as the album Live in New York City.