Created six years after John Lennon’s assassination in 1980, Yoko Ono and Oscar-winning animator and historian John Canemaker’s cartoon short John Lennon Sketchbook finally appeared on YouTube May 18, 2015. Executive produced by Ono and designed, directed, and animated by Canemaker, it is a poignant peek into the fertile mind of a Beatle whose prodigious talents extended well past creating immortal music.
“It was created from original drawings by John Lennon and a soundtrack that I also edited together, consisting of snatches of conversation between John and Yoko and song excerpts,” Canemaker told Cartoon Brew. “It is the first time a large general public has seen it (on YouTube).”
The short first came to life in 1985, after Canemaker visited Hiroshima for Japan’s first International Animated Film Festival and serendipitously found himself with an interpreter named Yoko Ninomiya (no relation to Ono), according to a 1987 How magazine explainer. After engaging in small talk about Yoko Ono, Ninomiya contacted Ono, and Canemaker received a scant few months later a holiday card from Lennon’s widow, marking the beginning of their collaboration.
Lennon was an “inveterate doodler” with “genuine ability as a graphic artist,” Canemaker explained in How. “His landscapes are as strange as George Herriman’s. Taken as a whole, Lennon’s drawings are another valid aspect of his creativity—a visual one, as biographical, imaginative and individualistic as his music.”
Choosing around 75 sketches as well as samples of songs and conversations from John and Yoko’s catalogues and interviews — including the epochal “Imagine,” the pragmatic “Whatever Gets You Through the Night,” and even a Lennon conversation about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. that anticipated his own murder — Canemaker set about transforming the late, great Beatle’s personal artistry into a public film. John Lennon Sketchbook’s officially premiered arrived during a 1986 retrospective of Canemaker’s work in Syracuse, New York, before moving to parts outward and even back to Hiroshima, “where this story began,” Canemaker mused in How.