Why “Ten For Two” is the John Lennon-Yoko Ono Music Doc You Haven’t Seen

When John Lennon and Yoko Ono accepted an invitation to perform at the John Sinclair Freedom Rally in Ann Arbor, they knew it would be an event to remember. In addition to their performances, the rock benefit concert marathon featured Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger and Allen Ginsberg as well as activists like Jerry Rubin, Bobby Seale, Father James Groppi and David Dellinger.

So Lennon and Ono commissioned “Ten For Two,” a documentary of the event; this Saturday, the University of Michigan’s student union will celebrate the event’s 40th anniversary. And the film is still unavailable for release in the U.S.

“It’s been a sore point with me since it was canned,” says Steve Gebhardt, who shot the film with Robert Fries and two other filmmakers. “I think it’s always had its need to be screened.”

Gebhardt believes that by the time the film was ready in early 1973, the couple feared its release would further antagonize the Nixon administration, which began trying to deport Lennon for his political activism after the Sinclair rally for Sinclair, an activist and manager of MC5 who received a 10-year sentence for possessing two joints. 

“I think the pressure was on from above, lawyers, not to the piss the government off at this point,” Gebhardt says.

Ono’s attorney, Jonas E. Herbsman, said by email that Ono wasn’t available to talk about the film. In a subsequent email asking for his input, Herbsman wrote, “Sorry, we do not have information on the film’s current status or exhibition history to share.”

Gebhardt used clips of the film, with permission, in his later documentary about Sinclair, “20 to Life.” And portions are used in 2006’s “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” which was made by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld with Ono’s participation.

Sometimes, a low-quality version of “Ten for Two” is on YouTube. Recently it was removed following a notice of a copyright claim of one “Waldorf Frommer Rechtsanwalte.” Translated, that means YouTube received a cease-and-desist from a representative of German law firm Frommer Waldorf, which specializes in copyright law and represents clients such as Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group and Universal Music. 

(It’s up again, for now; it’s embedded below.)

As far as a legitimate release goes, the idea of obtaining music clearances for a 40-year-old event is daunting — all the more unfortunate since the film is a succinct, rousing and well-edited time capsule that’s even more relevant in the world of Occupy Wall Street. 

Lennon and Ono brought agit-prop street singer David Peel and the Lower East Side along for support. Besides those previously mentioned, the long show also featured musicians Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, Phil Ochs, Roswell Rudd with Archie Shepp, and the Up.

The highlight of the Lennon/Ono set, for which he donned a steel guitar while she played a small conga drum, was the bluesy “John Sinclair.” (Other songs were “Attica State,” “The Luck of the Irish” and Ono’s “Sisters, O, Sister.”) Gebhardt ends the film with a seequence that shows an ecstatic Sinclair’s subsequent release from jail into the waiting arms of his family.

Sinclair wishes the film were available, too. “Other people should have a chance to see it,” he says. “It records a historical event very nicely and it’s in limbo.”

Both Gebhardt and Sinclair say neither Lennon nor Ono ever told them they wanted to block the film from release. But at a meeting about the film in 1973, Gebhardt says they surprised Sinclair with an unusual request.

“The way they dealt with it is Yoko said she wanted to give all the money (from the film) to women’s causes,” Gebhardt recalls. “Of course, John Sinclair came up with a list of where he wanted money to go to. His jaw dropped and Yoko and John dug in. And that was that. Sinclair went out the door to catch the plane back to Detroit and that was the end of the story.”

Sinclair adds: “That was the last time we spoke. I think it was their way to get out of it.”

Gebhardt met Lennon and Ono through avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas, his employer at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. In late 1970, Ono and Lennon showed up at Anthology to discuss film projects with Mekas. 

“They were behind closed doors for 20 minutes and then they called me in,” Gebhardt says. “They wondered if I’d be interested in shooting a couple of films of their design. I said yes, immediately.”

Gebhardt worked on the films with Fries, a filmmaking friend from Cincinnati who had set up a New York production company. They shot two of Ono’s best-known and well-received films, “Up Your Legs Forever” and “Fly.”  In 1971, they also worked on the couple’s long-form promotional film accompanying Lennon’s “Imagine” album, and in 1972 helped record Lennon’s two “One to One” benefit concerts in New York. 

They stopped working for Lennon and Ono in 1973.

By then, Gebhardt and Fries had another client, the Rolling Stones, for whom they had filmed some 1972 concerts for a 1974 limited theatrical release called “Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones.” 

Fries, now also in Cincinnati, recalls the delicacy of getting permission from Lennon for that. “He said, ‘You’re going to do something with Mick Jagger, right?’ I said, ‘Yeah, if it’s OK with you.’ He said, ‘Yes, but let me give you some advice. Watch out for him – he’s tricky.’ It pleased me that he wished me well.”