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John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band: Sweet Toronto (1971)

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1988 (USA)  »

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Sweet Toronto  »

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Slow set at a rocking show
26 December 2009 | by (Greensboro, N.C.) – See all my reviews

The Plastic Ono Band comes on stage near, if not at the end of a night of 100% rock and roll at the Toronto Rock And Roll Revival Festival featuring performances by Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley among others. The fact that The Plastic Ono band seems to be headlining this event must be due to John Lennon's enormous draw because the band is a far cry from headlining material. Playing a generic and slow set of Blue Suede Shoes, Money (That's What I Want), Dizzy Miss Lizzy and ending with a few Beatles songs and then Yoko's "thing," it's understandable why some of the audience left as the band performed their final song of the evening. Had the band ended with their covers of the Beatles' tracks, the night might have been overlooked as a small footnote in Lennon, Clapton, Voorman and White's long and lauded musical career, however it is Ono's eight minute opus which closes the performance that draws the most attention and criticism.

At the beginning, Ono curiously chose to hide herself under a white sheet in the middle of the stage as the band kicked off their set, though she had walked out on stage with the band. When she appeared again, her only musical contribution was to wail and moan under and sometimes over the vocals of John Lennon. What was obviously musical experimentation must have horrified the rock and rollers who had just sat through the phenomenal sets of Little Richard and Bo Diddley, etc, for Ono is truly not a rock and roll singer. As she sings, the cameramen and women of the film lock in on the face of Lennon. In what must be the most interesting editing choices in a music film, we watch, or appear to watch Lennon react to Ono's performance. It's hard to tell what he's thinking as we observe his often emotionless face. We the audience can interject anything we want into his psyche as the film presents us with the glancing eyes of Lennon juxtaposed to Ono's squealing. What was he thinking? Was he accepting of Ono's singing or did those eyes reveal some condescension? A follow-up interview to this performance with some of the band members would have been great.

The final song of the performance presents the audience with the biggest set of challenges. Lennon basically gives the stage over to Yoko who begins another series of wails with the band backing her up. Musically it begins generically enough, with Clapton and Lennon playing a slide guitar riff, but about five minutes in Lennon edges closer and closer to the amps and begins to adjust his guitar to generate feedback. What some might say quickly devolves into noise is actually a fascinating duet between Lennon and Ono. Matching each other with their own forms of noise, the two banter back and forth, experimenting with different pickups and amp settings in the case of Lennon, and Ono adjusting her vowels to make new noises. It is understandable why many many people found this too much and left or turned off their television set, and I must admit I too wanted at times to shut it all off, but what held me to the screen was Lennon and Ono's relationship and play. Here we see John Lennon, a man who claimed more popularity than Jesus seemingly slumming it up with an average band and a crazy woman singer. And yet he sticks with it to the very end. And not only does he stick with it, he encourages it as he hands the stage over to Ono for the final song of the night.

Sweet Toronto is an engaging film by a talented filmmaker that gives a unique perspective to an effervescent musical group. I highly recommend the film to all Lennon and Ono fans and to experimental music fans.


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