What does Michael Epstein’s Above Us Only Sky (2019) give us Lennon fans? We get to see a lot of the same Steve Gebhardt footage that went into Gimme Some Truth (2000), Imagine: John Lennon (1988), and John and Yoko’s own film Imagine (1971). Above Us Only Sky also recycles the editing strategies of Andrew Solt’s Imagine: John Lennon where audio interviews with Lennon are placed over images as a means of re-animating the deceased Beatle. As far as I can tell the only new asset that Above Us Only Sky brings to the table is a contemporary commentary on Lennon’s most successful solo album.
With these kinds of projects (documentaries about cultural superstars) it’s expected to see the same footage and hear the same interviews over and over again. This places a lot more burden on contemporary interviews than most documentaries. So it becomes vital that the content of these new interviews are compelling, illuminating, and forthright. For an avid fan of John Lennon’s, like myself, this will make or break any documentary about the man.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that Above Us Only Sky gives us much in this department. I remember when this documentary came out that I rushed to see it with the hope of being able to write about Lennon for my blog at the time. Immediately I was disappointed by how “white washed” the contemporary interviews with Yoko Ono and company felt. There was far too much praise for Lennon and not enough critical reexamination of the artist and his work. I had really hoped that Ono would have spoken frankly about her husband, regaling us viewers with “worts and all” stories from the studio. I wanted the dirt on Phil Spector, I wanted to hear about Lennon and George Harrison shit talking Paul McCartney, and I wanted Julian Lennon to let his guard down and really let his dad have it.
I suppose there is value to Above Us Only Sky if it engages with people unfamiliar with Lennon’s work. In cases like these I try to remember that it was only twenty or so years ago that I first became a Lennon devotee and found Solt’s documentary highly enlightening. In the end, it’s just a cycle of Lennon documentaries that come out every ten years or so to boost record sales and help celebrate some anniversary of one of John Lennon’s career milestones.