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Imagine: John Lennon
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.
After forming in Liverpool in the early 60s, The Beatles eventually became the benchmark for modern rock music. Adding popular tenants to an already bristling R&B catalog, the group went on to literally alter the songwriting landscape. When the group split in 1970, its most outspoken and vocal member was John Lennon. Long considered the "clever" or "experimental" component of the band, Lennon allowed his newfound love with second wife Yoko Ono to fuel a resurgent desire to play an active role in world - and personal - politics. His outspoken antics landed him on the FBI's dissident list (Lennon was applying for US citizenship after leaving England for New York City) and he eventually gave up music to focus on the raising of his young son Sean.
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.
Teachers tell writers that, unless you have a knack to attack the epic, it is better to narrow your perspective and give a significantly smaller scoped project a try. The same advice is appropriate for director Andrew Solt and producer David L. Wolper. Like they did with the so-called King of Rock and Roll in This is Elvis, the duo determined to tell us the entirety of the life of one John Winston Ono Lennon. Unfortunately, the boy from Tupelo was a far easier narrative nut to crack. For all his personas, Elvis was an even keeled entity, hiding his secret substance abuse behind his aching good ole boy charms and the careful control of Colonel Tom Parker. His story was simple. But Lennon's was, and remains to this day, woefully complex. There were so many phases, so many faces (both public and private) that made up this intricate, inventive man that to try and tackle all of them in a single two hour film is just preposterous. That the pair partially succeeds is an amazing statement to their talent - and the treasure trove of material at their disposal.
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.
Warner Brothers, releasing this title to tie in with the 25th Anniversary of his death, gives Imagine: John Lennon a rather unimpressive 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image is soft, faded in sections, and never quite looks new. Certainly, some of its failings result from an over reliance on archival material. Much of the footage was flawed when Solt and Wolper came across it, and no effort has been made to update it or even to remaster the whole print. With the occasional fleck of dirt, insignificant scratch and glimpse of grain, Imagine is less than impressive. Combined with the lack of a definitive Dolby Digital sound design, this is a technically limited digital presentation.
Here's the rub about the audio - there is no 5.1 mix offered. The lack of such a complex sonic feature is unforgivable, especially when dealing with the music made by The Beatles and Lennon. Sure, the songs sound good as it stands (Dolby Digital Stereo and all), but there is a voice-heavy element to the singing that seems to shuttle the rest of the instrumentation in the background. Also, many of the classic songs used in the film are not the original versions of the tunes, but outtakes, rehearsals, and alternate versions. Either that, or the soundtrack is even worse than first imagined. While the narration is clear and easy to understand, we are really here for the music. Sadly, Warner's DVD treatment is less than thrilling.
Here is the one place the WB gets it almost right. Starting with a Lennon Trivia Track (a text-based commentary that runs along the bottom of the screen during the film) and ending with a conversation with Lennon's old school headmaster, this DVD is chock full of added content. Some of it is sensational (the interview update with the filmmakers - entitled A Tribute to John Lennon: The Man, The Music, The Memories is just great) while other bits are sort-of baffling (the quaint Q&A with Mr. Pobjoy, who only knew Lennon as a "troublemaker"). In between we see Lennon play an acoustic version of Imagine, offer a tour of the island house on his Tittenhurst Estate in England, and discuss his career on BBC radio (in a feature entitled John Lennon: Truth Be Told). While a full follow-up, dealing with Chapman, the continuing Beatles legacy and the mid-90s event of the group 'reforming' to turn demos "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" into actual songs (the latter is actually heard over the closing credits of Imagine: John Lennon) would have rounded out this package nicely. As it stands, the complimentary material is the best part of this DVD presentation.
Lennon's far too early death really did preserve his legacy in a kind of frozen in fawning mannerism. There wasn't the passage of time as with Dylan, a chance to hear several substandard albums and endure uninspired concerts before seeing genius recaptured and reborn. Unlike his Beatle band mates, he hadn't fallen out of fashion (the 80s would do it to everyone) only to reinvent himself as an elder statesman of the 60s. Indeed, like the Russian leader with whom he shares a moniker, John Lennon is locked in a kind of timeless tomb. He never ages, never stumbles or strays from the elements that made him iconic. This is perhaps why Imagine: John Lennon feels so strangely shallow. This behind the scenes look at this amazing man still deserves to be Highly Recommended, but it's a true shame he's gone on to meet his maker. Alive, he could be contributing - not only to the slowly dying popular culture, but to a new film that would finally reveal his true inner nature. Looks like Scorsese will never get the chance to rebuild this quasi-crumbling facade
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