24 Hours: The World of John and Yoko

John Lennon

24 Hours: The World of John and Yoko

Last seen more than 50 years ago, and having aired just once on TV, this intimate documentary — captured over a five-day period — shows a day in the life of John and Yoko while Lennon was still a member of the Beatles, controversies raged and activism became a central concern in the couple’s everyday reality.

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The Whole World Is a Theater

Alan Light

6 Min Read

  • John Lennon and Yoko Ono remain fearless in the face of resistance and ridicule

  • The couple gets bombarded by a relentless procession of global press

  • Though still a Beatle at the time, Lennon acts as if he knows the band is done

John Lennon would have loved social media.  I mean, who the hell knows? Lennon loved a lot of things — the Maharishi, Primal Scream therapy, radical politics — until he didn’t, and moved on to something else. But if there is a theme that remained consistent through his work, it was using his platform to share an immediate and unfiltered view of his own life. 

 Early on, this approach took the form of groundbreaking songs like “Help!,” “I’m a Loser” and “In My Life,” which revealed insecurities and self-doubts that were unlike anything previously expressed in pop music. Soon, Lennon’s writing became even more direct, conjuring his deepest childhood memories (“Strawberry Fields Forever”), bringing his own family members into his lyrics (“Julia,” “The Ballad of John and Yoko”), and chronicling his struggles with drug use (“Cold Turkey”). Once he got together with Yoko Ono, this impulse blossomed into a near-obsession with documenting as much of their lives as possible and turning it into art with experimental recordings and films. 

So there’s every reason to believe that the contemporary ability to share thoughts instantly, however big or small, and present them to an audience without any mediation, would have been a powerful tool for Lennon. It’s this side of him that we see — in theory and in practice — in “24 Hours: The World of John and Yoko,” a BBC special that can now be seen in full for the first time since it was initially broadcast on Dec. 15, 1969. 

The title of this 30-minute documentary is a bit of a cheat, since in fact the footage was shot over five days, from Dec. 2 through Dec. 6, at a variety of locations, including Lennon’s Tittenhurst Park estate, Abbey Road Studios and the Apple offices in London. What emerges through director Paul Morrision’s disconnected, cinema verite style, with no narration or analysis, is a portrait of two energized and inspired artist-activists, with a strong sense of purpose and a fearless attitude, even in the face of resistance and ridicule. 

Lennon and Ono work on multiple projects: the “War Is Over” billboards and posters; a potential fourth album in their “unfinished music” series (ultimately scrapped, Lennon had described the concept as “one side is laughing, the other is whispering,” which is exactly what goes on in the sessions); a film (unidentified in “24 Hours,” but later titled “Apotheosis 2”); and a trip to Toronto for a gallery event. 

Mostly, what we see is the Lennons interacting with the media, a seemingly nonstop parade of press from around the world.

With a tone between impatience and exasperation, Lennon asks their assistant, Anthony Fawcett (who later wrote the biography “John Lennon: One Day at a Time”), “Just tell us what we’re doing today.” In another snippet, he says that “work is the best cure for anything — you’ve no time to be insecure if you’re doing something.” Mostly, what we see is the Lennons interacting with the media, a seemingly nonstop parade of press from around the world. 

There’s a brief clip of Lennon being filmed at home for the ATV “Man of the Decade” special, and several radio and print journalists being ushered into the Apple office for their turn with the couple. A BBC radio reporter even has the audacity to ask if she can join them in their car to discuss a rumor that John will be playing Jesus in an unnamed production (her request is politely rebuffed). 

Lennon and Ono clearly and repeatedly articulate the intention for all of this coverage: They view it all as an advertising campaign to promote the idea of peace. “The campaign hasn’t been going as long as Coca-Cola’s or Shell, and the identification symbols aren’t as well known,” Lennon says. “It’s going to take us a few years for them to know when we say ‘peace’ what it means.” 

Their strategy is challenged in a notorious, contentious interview with Gloria Emerson of The New York Times. “You’ve made yourself ridiculous!,” she says, adding “you don’t think you’ve saved a single life?” and “you’re a fake!” But the Lennons aren’t rattled by her accusations — John’s voice rises as he responds, but he makes his case effectively. “You want nice, middle-class gestures for peace?” he says. “And intellectual manifestoes written by a lot of half-witted intellectuals and nobody reads ‘em!” Before Emerson storms out, he says, “I’ve grown up, but you obviously haven’t.” 

The greatest irony is that Emerson was hardly a philistine or a hawkish conservative; she was a pioneering war correspondent in Vietnam who later won a National Book Award for her writing about the experience. So this debate is all the more interesting, as it illustrates the divide between conventional liberal protest and the more street-savvy, action oriented style the Lennons — like Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies — were championing, a vision of “branding” a cause in a way that’s become the modern standard. 

‘It got to the situation, if we had the name “Beatles” on it, it sells,’ Lennon says, ‘and when we begin to think like that, then there’s something wrong.’

Equally telling is what we really don’t see in “24 Hours,” which is John the Beatle. The group hasn’t yet publicly broken up, though Lennon had told the others in September that he was planning to leave. There’s one exchange with a reporter who asks about the band, and the answer is almost clinical. “It got to the situation, if we had the name ‘Beatles’ on it, it sells,” Lennon says, “and when we begin to think like that, then there’s something wrong.” 

During the days when this filming was taking place, George Harrison was barnstorming around England, playing as part of Delaney and Bonnie’s band, and Ringo Starr was recording selections from the Great American Songbook for his solo debut, “Sentimental Journey.” Paul McCartney, having retreated to his farm in Scotland for the previous few months, was back in London and starting work on his “McCartney” album. There were mixing sessions for the U.S. release of the “Hey Jude” compilation album, and still final recording coming up to finish “Let It Be,” but it’s eminently clear that the dream is over. 

There’s a stunning shot of the Lennons watching footage of the Beatles playing at the Cavern Club a mere six years earlier; we can only imagine what John is thinking, just as we can only imagine what the screaming fans we see still camped out in front of Apple headquarters made of this show when it aired. 

“24 Hours” is a fascinating snapshot of a hugely transitional moment for John and Yoko, and a hint of what an Instagram future for them might have looked like. It’s Ono who has the last word, and who summarizes this phase of their incomparable life together. 

“It’s one thing to write about a strange couple who’s in bed, doing the bed-in event and all that, [or] write a song about it,” she says. “But it’s another thing to really do it in actual life… What we started to do was, instead of writing a play about it, we just started to do it in real life, so the whole world is a theater.”

Alan Light is a music journalist, author and the co-host of the daily music talk show “Debatable” on SiriusXM. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Vibe and Spin magazines, and a former Senior Writer for Rolling Stone. Alan’s books include biographies of Prince, Johnny Cash, Nina Simone and the Beastie Boys, and he co-wrote best-selling memoirs by Gregg Allman and Peter Frampton. His book “The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of ‘Hallelujah’” is currently being developed as a documentary, and he was the writer for the acclaimed HBO film “Elvis Presley: The Searcher.” He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Mojo and Esquire.

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