John Lennon lost his life at age 40, leaving behind millions of mourning fans. Using many hours of film and audio recordings made with his wife Yoko Ono, Imagine: John Lennon is a feature-length documentary that chronicles a remarkable life in intimate detail.
The big surprise of this pleasing and contemplative film is how non-exploitative it is. Fears that it would be a cash-in fluff piece by Ms. Ono dissolve as the docu plays out. Expert hands have taken a great deal of historical footage and ordered it into a coherent and affecting narrative.
The project started because Yoko Ono wanted to make a definitive film about Lennon with the accumulated film and recordings from their too-short life together. Everything that was needed was there, especially a key collection of over 100 hours of Lennon's voice recordings. Ono put the film in the hands of top documentary producer David L. Wolper and noted Rock 'n Roll documentarian Andrew Solt. Solt has a keen feel for drama as well as biography and must have leaped at the chance to illustrate Lennon's life with such prime source material. The unsung hero is the editor Bert Lovitt. The film is only 106 minutes in length but is culled from hundreds of hours of film and videotape.
Imagine: John Lennon does a fine job of separating the man from the mystique. Lennon's own voice is the predominant narration track. During several years of relative inactivity in the 1970s he taped his thoughts and memories, recordings that are used as an oral history of his life. Almost everything we knew about the Beatles in their heyday was in the form of untrustworthy publicity, so it is refreshing to hear Lennon speak for himself about his unhappy childhood and the blur of the Beatles years. He's candid about being raised by an aunt and the experience of living without his mother, only to lose her to a traffic accident only a few months after a reunion years later. He moved from banjo to guitar to being a rough Liverpool musician convinced he'd someday be a great star.
Solt and Lovitt don't overplay the well-documented Beatles era, concentrating an excellent selection of film clips -- performances, cheeky press conferences -- only as Lennon remembers them. It was all so fast that none of the four could take it in. Lennon's first wife Cynthia recounts the frustration of having to pretend in public that she was not with John to maintain the illusion of availability for Lennon's myriad fans. Both she and Lennon remember with regret an incident in which she was prevented from boarding a train with the rest of the Beatles' entourage because she couldn't keep up and was restrained by security men who didn't know who she was. All of the material in Imagine: John Lennon is keyed to this level of intimacy.
With the Yoko Ono years the show settles into its core content. The breakup of The Beatles seems imminent during the unhappy making of Let it Be, with George Harrison trying to buffer resentment between Lennon and Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono's presence representing the final dissolution of the partnership. Lennon linked himself with Ono as a creative partnership separate from his commitment to the Beatles, and that was that.
Lennon fans still regard Yoko Ono with suspicion but the show doesn't defend her role in Lennon's life; other documentaries use much more footage of Lennon gushing over how much he loves her. We hear none of their experimental album releases and instead listen to Ono admitting that they stopped recording together when John realized that the public didn't want it. They settle into an English country house called the Tittenhurst Estate where Lennon raises his new son Sean and discovers a different set of priorities in domestic life. In a touching candid episode, John receives a spaced-out young man who has trespassed on his estate hoping to connect with his idol. Lennon tries to explain that his lyrics weren't intended as personal messages and that he's just a fellow writing songs, not a guru looking for dreamers to turn into disciples. Lennon invites the hungry fellow in and gives him a meal.
The docu directly confronts the singer-poet's brushes with scandal and notoriety. An offhand remark about being more popular than Jesus results in a Bible-belt campaign of anti-Beatles sentiment at just about the same time that the group stopped touring because screaming multitudes of fans made their music seem irrelevant. A few years later, authorities eager to discredit the outspoken couple's anti-Vietnam position target John and Yoko for minor drug-bust harassment.
Their "Give Peace a Chance" publicity stunts are covered by reporters and pundits predisposed to expose them as frauds or fools. John and Yoko openly state that they're using their celebrity to promote pacifism, and if that makes them into clowns, where's the harm? Those sentiments unfortunately attract cartoonist and conservative pundit Al Capp (Li'l Abner), who visits during a publicity "Bed-In" for the express purpose of provoking the pair. The uncut footage shows Capp baiting Lennon with racist insults, inferring that Yoko is "Madame Nhu" and a whore. Predictably, it's Lennon who must restrain his own managers from letting Capp start a fight, so he can claim that Lennon is as violent as anyone else.
The second half of the seventies find John and Yoko in New York, perhaps preparing to launch another recording effort. The show proves its worth by avoiding the details of his murder that have been so strongly covered elsewhere, instead showing his new appreciation of his success and his relationship with Yoko. The impression left of Lennon is a man just beginning to become comfortable with his own image as a poet of peace and harmony.
Warners' Deluxe Edition of Imagine: John Lennon is a splendid enhanced transfer of a meticulously assembled show. Most of the music was carefully restored and remixed, and more than half of the running time is accompanied by well-chosen songs from the Beatles era and Lennon's solo career. Néstor Almendros filmed the new interviews, putting a touch of class on the entire proceedings.
The disc extras are a thoughtful selection of prime resources. An interview piece with the filmmakers divides its time between celebrating Lennon and recounting the making of the documentary. A John Lennon trivia subtitle track brings up countless bits of errata as the movie plays. For instance, I had no idea that John Lennon was legally blind without his glasses. We hear Lennon performing Imagine on acoustic guitar. More footage is offered of the construction of a little house on an Island on Lennon's Ascot estate. In addition to the film's trailer there is also a BBC radio interview, an interview with Lennon's grammar school headmaster and DVD-Rom features accessible only on PCs, not Macs.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Imagine: John Lennon Deluxe Edition rates: