John Lennon will be dead 25 years come December 2005, the saddest story in the entire legacy of The Beatles. With George Harrison recently off to join him in the great big jam session in the sky, the band is beginning to lose its living heritage, so Warner Brothers has seen fit to reissue the only theatrical documentary ever made about the group and its fiercely independent founding member. Imagine: John Lennon came out only eight years after a maniac murdered the inspirational musician; events were still too raw to gain proper perspective. Some 17 years after the fact, this truth is even more telling - and the film even less revealing.
In the late 70s, he felt the muse calling him again, and he set out to record a new album. Sober, centered and completely ready to reestablish his rock and roll credentials, Lennon never got the chance to enjoy his later years. A sick son of a bitch named Mark David Chapman, with a stupid stalker's mentality and a profoundly disturbed view of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, put several slugs in the artist's body as he stopped to sign autographs before retiring to his NYC apartment. He died at the hospital. He was only 40 years old.
Still, Imagine: John Lennon is a presentation that calls up decidedly mixed emotions. On the one hand, it is unbelievable that a band like The Beatles, a group that literally changed the face of popular music, is not the subject of more in-depth, transcendent documentary experiences. Their story, and the music they made, is so mythic, so laced with legend, that in the hands of a proper filmmaker, something akin to a new religion could be created. Sadly, since the group has been so notoriously insular with their heritage, calculating to the point of putting out their own pre-packaged puff pieces together and calling them anthologies, fans have had to suffer these several shoddy, bootleg-like versions of their biography.
Things would be totally different now. It is easy to envision Lennon, alive and well in 2005, calling Martin Scorsese up on the phone and giving him a clear and simple mandate - do for the Fab Four (or if they don't care, just him) what he recently accomplished for Bob Dylan with No Direction Home. That terrific troubadour got the contextual career boast of a lifetime in the filmmaker's fascinating, probing, profile. Scorsese delivered what so many other banal bios tended to miss - perspective and circumstantial framework. No Direction Home actually envisioned and reestablished Dylan as part of his past. Imagine loses Lennon in his and the truth never really comes out.
Scattered throughout the accolades and plaudits, iconic moments and overdone information (do we really need to know once again that, by 1966, The Beatles were sick of touring???) are the makings of a magnificent overview of who John Lennon really was. Watching the scene where he confronts, and then comforts, a drifter who has taken up a kind of predatory residence in the musician's manor garden is so prophetic, so indicative of what John Lennon meant to his fans and to his fame that his shooting some years later seems sort of pre-ordained, a natural outcome of his openness and honesty.
Similarly, when cranky, conservative cartoonist Al Capp more or less ridicules the musician (along with verbally attacking and abusing Yoko) for doing nothing more than expressing his opinions, the scene showcases the importance of Lennon as a voice. Capp, for all his Li'l Abner lameness, fancied himself a kind of philosopher for the three-martini morons who believed Dogpatch was the height of social satire. Watching Lennon let him hang himself is one of the film's finest moments. But it is also a rarity, one of the few times when the glorification of the subject succumbs to the reality of the musician's multifaceted personality.
Equally, when Lennon is in the studio with a dashing, dandy Phil Spector, putting the finishing polish on the Imagine album, it is a treasured glimpse of an artist as natural musician. Everything he does appears effortless and graceful, and yet there is an incredible amount of creativity and craft coming out of those simple melodies and chords. Hearing "Jealous Guy" in its infancy, or watching Lennon work through "Mother" onstage is spine tingling. Even his goof on the title song, played poorly on piano for some friends, evolves beyond his silly lounge singer slickness to become the anthem we know today.
Indeed, what Imagine misses so much here is the music. Since The Beatles don't like to pony up their product for soundtracks, the wealth of work represented here is amazing. But it is never given the proper place in the story. It is background for narrative changes, montage fodder, or examples that loose their meaning once the second chorus careens through the speakers. Lennon's cheek at the Royal Command Performance (the classic "rattle your jewelry" line) has very little to do with "Twist and Shout". Yet that's the song we hear, before immediately moving on to other times when the band performed it on TV. The incident is left hanging, and the meaning of the song to the group, and his fans, is fathomless.
In addition, Lennon's other artistic endeavors are completely ignored. His film work in Richard Lester's How I Won the War is passed off as a way of burning some creative fuel, while A Hard Day's Night, Help, and Magical Mystery Tour are completely ignored (the few moments we see from Let It Be, aside from the obligatory look at the rooftop concert, are in defense of Yoko's newfound place in the studio beside her man). In addition, there is nary a mention of Lennon's books (In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works) and his drawings and lithographs are a police blotter side note. You can literally feel segments of his life being jettisoned for another look at his infamous Bed-Ins, or another view of John and Yoko in love's lost bliss.
What Imagine needed was a stronger source of center. It lacks a cohesive theme and avoids the more infamous elements of the Lennon saga for the same old reputation saving song and dance. The murder is treated with respect and reverence, but the discussion of it doesn't offer the single symbolic moment that the musician's death actually left on the world. People recall John's passing the way they remember the assassination of JFK, or the tragedy of 9/11. Yet aside from a few crowd shots, the elegy is painfully superficial.
One gets the impression that Solt and Wolper were too close to the Ono camp, confidences leading to conflicts in where their story could actually go (though they deny this in the conversations contained in the extras). Also, by deciding to use Lennon's own words to tell most of the story (culled from interviews and other sources) there is a limit to what can and cannot be addressed - basically, if he talked about it, then it can be mentioned. Still, for all it's failing, this is a fine introductory look at a legendary figure, peppered with some positively masterful material. Imagine: John Lennon is not a great documentary, but it does deliver a decent message on a truly memorable musician - and man.