The Lost Weekend: A Love Story Review: May Pang shares her story

The so-called Lost Weekend, when John Lennon split from Yoko Ono in late 1973-1974 and moved to Los Angeles, where he became a hard-drinking rock club night owl while having an affair with 22-year-old The Old May Pang (the used to be John and Yoko’s assistant) has long been part of rock mythology. It was taken from everything by E! Documentaries on Albert Goldman’s The Lives of John Lennon. Like many Lennon watchers, I always felt I knew the basics.

I knew that after John and Yoko got married in 1969 and appeared like inseparable soul mates in Art and Life, they struggled as a couple. This Yoko, trying to save the marriage, made the decision to set John up with May Pang, basically directing the two to have a romantic affair. That in LA, for the first time since the Beatles broke up (and perhaps since the Beatles’ inception), John let his hair down and began to enjoy a more relaxed, brotherly, sometimes boozing Rat Pack existence. That he became a fixture at the Rainbow Bar & Grill on Sunset Boulevard along with Harry Nilsson, Alice Cooper, Bernie Taupin, Mickey Dolenz and others who became known as Hollywood vampires. That John returned to Yoko after 18 months of partying and soul searching and commented at the time (in one of the funniest jokes of his life, which says something) that “the breakup didn’t work out”. And that his decision to go back made the entire episode look like Yoko’s version of a Jedi mind trick.

The central character in the new documentary The Lost Weekend: A Love Story is May Pang, who has told her story many times (in her memoir and on talk shows like Geraldo – we see a lot of clips of those performances in the film). Directed by Eve Brandstein, Richard Kaufman and Stuart Samuels, the film is told entirely from their point of view. It’s a portrait of May Pang, growing up in Spanish Harlem as a second-generation Chinese-American (“a minority among minorities,” she says), and how she fell in love with rock ‘n’ roll and became famous with it, in a kind of karmic way Fate.

In the photos we saw of her and John at the time, she always had an understated beauty and a certain mystery behind those tinted hexagonal glasses. But in “The Lost Weekend,” we see that May Pang was a tough, ambitious city girl who spoke with a slight but blunt New York accent, and that after dropping out of college she had the chutzpah to talk her way into a job at the Apple Records offices on Broadway. She was a cuddly cat, and when she started working for John and Yoko, doing every makeshift job available—avant-garde film production assistant, costume designer—she had an exuberant smile and an affable vivacity. She was funny but circumspect (she didn’t drink or do drugs).

The documentary is Pang’s diary-like account of how Lost Weekend played out week by week, emotion by emotion, and in that regard offers a fascinating, insightful and at times moving portrait of John Lennon as he tries to find himself in a world who had caught up with him. The film is also a portrait of Pang’s romantic passion, which, as she portrays, was both innocent and deeply serious. To say she was overwhelmed would be an understatement. She was 10 years younger than Lennon (and 17 years younger than Yoko), who was her boss and a Beatle. Once they were together, Yoko would call her non-stop, wanting to know what was going on. It was all a joke; Pang just went with the flow. But she recounts with a convincing indolence how she and John became sociable and erotic companions, their affair rooted in genuine affection and in Lennon’s discovery that he didn’t always have to live so chained to his legend. (By the early ’70s he had become a real political rant; after the 1972 caning of “Some Time in New York City,” that was part of what he let go.)

There’s amazing archival footage everywhere, giving you an unusually rich taste of what Lennon was like away from the limelight. The dark side is very strongly represented. We hear Pang’s stories about how Lennon, in a drunken fit to confront his demons, destroyed her LA apartment and how he sometimes hit her. And there are startling photos documenting the recording of “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the album of early rock chestnuts Lennon made with Phil Spector, who was entering his full mad dog phase. But according to Pang, the fabled tales of Lennon’s wrongdoing, when he and Harry Nilsson were kicked out of the Troubadour nightclub after too many Brandy Alexanders for molesting the Smothers Brothers, were the exception rather than the rule. It is no coincidence that during this period he reconciled with Paul. In a way that is both casually moving and surprising, we see them bury their bitterness and rediscover their friendship.

The narrative that shapes The Lost Weekend is May Pang’s gently uplifting insistence that she and Lennon were truly in love. And we have to believe that because it’s all very subjective and not necessarily backed up by what happened. Did Yoko really stage the whole thing? According to May Pang, she certainly did, going to Pang’s office in the fortress-like Dakota, where John and Yoko had moved to feel safer (Lennon was being seriously harassed by the FBI at this point, as President Nixon wanted him deported) and her basically giving an order: You will have a relationship with John. Yoko had observed John’s infidelity so she figured she would roam him around with a woman she could control. It was a decision of seriously perverted manipulation in every way.

Yet this was the bed-hopping, do-what-you-feel ’70s, so things just seemed a little less weird at the time. It wasn’t Yoko’s idea for the two to move to LA; that was John’s impulsive decision. The documentary tells how, after about a year there, they returned to New York just as spontaneously and moved into a small apartment on E. 52nd St., where they spent the early months of 1975. We see Pang’s picture of Bob Gruen taking his famous picture of Lennon in a New York City t-shirt. One night, she and John saw a UFO from the rooftop (Lennon’s description and sketch of it are haunting), and according to Pang, they talked about buying a home in Montauk.

But Yoko was already back in the frame and popped backstage to catch John at the premiere of an Off-Broadway show set to “Sgt. Pepper.” There are moments in the film when Yoko doesn’t fare well, to say the least – notably in Pang’s description of Yoko attempting to break off Lennon’s relationship with his son Julian. Julian is interviewed throughout the film and he (like his mother Cynthia) shared a close bond with Pang, and that Pang helped bring John and Julian back together despite Yoko’s machinations seems more convincing than not.

What doesn’t seem convincing, at least as the film portrays it, is the final twist in this extraordinary rock ‘n’ roll soap opera. After John returns to Yoko seemingly out of nowhere and Pang confronts him about it, he simply says: She makes me come back. Rental him? That doesn’t square with what the film implied – that Lennon has moved away from Yoko. His comment suggests that their breakup was always contingent on an agreement between them. But that’s something we have to guess about, since for all the ways it’s been recorded, the life of John Lennon isn’t entirely recognizable. The Lost Weekend is a compelling film and a valuable piece of the puzzle, but it only pretends to be the whole puzzle. The Lost Weekend: A Love Story Review: May Pang shares her story

Charles Jones

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