Cultural immortality belongs to a very few, a subject that comes up in a pair of documentaries this week devoted to 20th-century icons, John Lennon and Richard Pryor.
The A&E presentation “John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky” is the more intimate of the two – a deep dive into the making of Lennon and wife Yoko Ono’s “Imagine” album in 1971, which feels like must-see TV for rock fans. Later in the week, Paramount Network will air “I Am Richard Pryor,” the latest in a series of “I Am” biographies devoted, frequently, to those who died too soon.
Culled in part from an extensive trove of home video – including never-before-seen footage shot around Lennon’s place in Tittenhurst Park, England – with up-to-date interviews, “John & Yoko” provides a glimpse of Lennon in his studio/home, interacting not only with his wife but in recording sessions with fellow Beatle George Harrison, guitarist Eric Clapton and producer Phil Spector.
Much of the documentary focuses on the romance between Lennon and Ono, while acknowledging the vicious and often bigoted response elicited by the perception that she “broke up” the Fab Four.
There’s also a strong sense of the idealism that informed Lennon’s solo work and his forays into politics, which as detailed here includes the decision to return his Member of the Most Honorable Order of the British Empire medal, or MBE, to the Queen in 1973 as a form of protest. Separately, the special contains an unsettling illustration of the burdens of fame, as Lennon patiently and calmly deals with an obsessive fan who has shown up unannounced at his home.
At one point Lennon talks about recording the song “So This is Christmas” as something that will “last forever,” but friends note that when recording “Imagine” he didn’t fully recognize its enduring significance, which activist Tariq Ali describes as “a utopian manifesto for a progressive movement.”
Although “John and Yoko” focuses somewhat narrowly on a very specific moment in time, it provides a vivid portrait of Lennon, Ono and what brought them together, creating a poignant reminder of what they accomplished, as well as what was lost.
As son Julian Lennon puts it, the allure of “Imagine” was “We all really want what he’s singing about.” It’s a thought that takes on a more sobering dimension contemplating how this champion of peace died in an act of violence at age 40, extinguishing all that brilliance and passion with so much sky above him, and so much life ahead of him.
“John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky” premieres March 11 at 9 p.m. on A&E.
“I Am Richard Pryor” premieres March 15 at 10 p.m. on Paramount Network, after a March 12 premiere at the SXSW Festival.