Movies: Come Together: A Night for John Lennon’s Words and Music (2008)

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by Nick DeRiso

“Come Together,” a concert first envisioned as a benefit to raise anti-violence awareness through the work of John Lennon, was scheduled to be held on Oct. 2, 2001, at New York City’s famed Radio City Music Hall.

Then came Sept. 11.

This rangy event, featuring recorded snippets of Lennon interviews and new interpretations of his songs (both solo and with the Beatles), evolved into both a poignant reminder of what the world lost when Lennon was killed but also a tribute to the city he called home for the last years of his life.

As such, like Lennon, “Come Together” (issued in November by Eagle Rock Entertainment) has its moments of light and great darkness. Though often the introductions to these tunes, presented by stars of stage and screen, make a show of stoicism amidst the wreckage of the terror attacks, Lennon’s music can’t be so easily framed. Perhaps no other artist as famous ever fashioned a career more deserving of a tribute this messy and real.

Lou Reed captures that dichotomy with a furious, guitar-driven retrofitting of “Jealous Guy.” Where Lennon, playing an elegiac piano on the original “Imagine” album track, sounded sheepishly apologetic about his emotional outbursts, with Reed you can’t be so sure. That feels right. This song, and this night, were about love but also anger.

Alanis Morissette creates a welcome new tension during “Dear Prudence,” Lennon’s initial cut on the Beatles’ 1968 self-titled release, as well. Morissette’s confrontational vocal style, which finds the emotional edge in any lyric, is counterbalanced by the band’s softer, more mystical underpinnings.

As with any multi-artist, 16-track DVD, not everything works: Shelby Lynne, a brave country artist, is a bit too careful on Lennon’s harrowing “Mother,” though that’s perhaps expected in the midst of an evening like this.

The Stone Temple Pilots (“Revolution”), Cyndi Lauper (“Strawberry Fields Forever”) and Natalie Merchant (“Nowhere Man”), on the other hand, seem tone deaf to the complexity of the work they’re attempting. Marc Anthony makes too much of the baroque underpinnings on “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” chilling it down to icy emptiness.

“Instant Karma,” with a ham-handed, traveling rock-show arrangement by former Eurythmic Dave Stewart and Nelly Furtado, ends up as a bawdy mess. And let’s just say I liked host Kevin Spacey, a terrific actor who somehow attempts “Mind Games,” better as Bobby Darin.

Just as often, however, there is a stop-short, shimmering beauty about “Come Together,” these moments that buoy the project through its rousing closer, an ensemble rendition of “Give Peace a Chance” and “Power to the People.”

Yolanda Adams, appearing with famed “Fifth Beatle” Billy Preston at the organ, begins the evening by refashioning the song “Imagine” into a chugging, blues-based send up. Over its final verse, Preston’s call-and-response works as both a heart-felt challenge toward peace and a pew-rattling gospel affirmation that it’s still possible.

“Across the Universe,” from the Fab finale “Let It Be,” features Moby, the former Beatle’s son Sean Lennon and this quivering, almost tearful vocal by Rufus Wainwright. They embolden a song that once held a memorably dreamlike quality with this shaky defiance: “Nothing’s gonna change my world,” the trio sings, in a world that did, in fact, feel completely changed.

Sean’s presence — and the awful reminder that this DVD debuted as the 28th anniversary of Lennon’s murder looms on Dec. 8 — provides its own center point emotionally. He closes the concert with a pair of his father’s recordings.

“Julia,” from “The White Album,” is both a tribute to the grandmother Sean never knew — and to his own mother, who John Lennon references in the song as “ocean child,” the Japanese-to-English translation of “Yoko.”

More revelatory still is Sean’s rendition of the early Beatles tune “This Boy,” again performed with Wainwright (and embedded below).

On this evening — with stories-high photographs of his slain father projected behind him, many featuring Sean as a pre-schooler — the younger Lennon’s plaintive cry during the tune’s principal lyric assumes billowing new meaning: “This boy wants you back again.”

And “Come Together,” for all of its occasional missteps, becomes a testament to the enduringly transformative power of Lennon’s music.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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