A film review by Craig J. Koban



20th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1988, R, 103 mins.

A Documentary directed by Andrew Solt / Written by Sam Egan And Solt / Narrated by John Lennon

ďI don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.Ē 

Lyrics from ďGODĒ by John Lennon

Itís astonishing to consider that we will soon be closing in on the 30th anniversary of John Lennonís viscous murder at the hands of Mark David Chapman.  Itís also equally astounding how fresh and vibrant the 1988 documentary, IMAGINE: JOHN LENNON, still is twenty years after the fact.  

This work, which was the bi-product of scavenging over hundreds of hours of archival, concert, and personal home movie footage, is a searing, fascinating, and utterly transfixing film about one of the most important cultural figures of the 20th Century.  The documentary is both a fitting celebration of Lennonís life and career and a touchingly sad testament to his legacy.  It is, if anything, an important work, not to mention absolutely essential viewing for any Beatle fan.    

Ironically, this film could not have been made without the contributions of Lennon himself.  The artist left well over 200 hours of film, video, and audio content that showcased his life, creative exploits, and the somewhat haunting buildup to his tragic demise on December 8, 1980.  Whatís most crucial is that IMAGINE allows an incredibly rare glimpse into the voice and mindset of a musician and artist that has always had a longstanding legacy of being an enigma.  I think what IMAGINE does best - both upon my first viewing of it over ten years ago and recently on a glorious restored HD version that just played on HD Net - is that it neither tries to demystify nor overly simplify this complicated man.  Instead, it basically allows us to live within several moments of his life, watching Lennon like a fly on a wall.   

Successful producers and documentarians David L. Wolper and Andrew Solt (who collaborated on THIS IS ELVIS) were the creative force behind this captivating documentary.  Although they were originally approached by Lennon widow, Yoko Ono, in 1986 to make a film about her husbandís life, Wolper and Solt insisted that the film be theirs and theirs alone.  Surprisingly, Ono agreed and allowed the filmmakers access to Lennon's archives.  Trying to sift through the endless amount of material would seem daunting enough, but what truly complicated matters was their doggedness to make IMAGINE through the voice of Lennon himself.  Instead of having some faceless and dry narrator comment on the proceedings, the producers opted to have the film told via Lennonís own voice.   

This proved to be an absolutely Herculean task for all involved.  This essentially required Solt and his editors, Bud Freidgen and Bert Lovitt, to comb through endless hours of film footage and archival audio recordings and piece everything together to make some sort of cohesive whole.  The task was, no doubt, incredibly daunting Ė if not a bit motivated and audacious Ė but the results speak for themselves.  Having anyone else but Lennon narrate IMAGINE would have undone the film.  By having the artist speak freely about his life and times and his artistic endeavors, it allowed for the documentary to have an almost ethereal evocativeness.  On top of this, we are also given insights by a few people that were integral to Lennonís life, via then-new interviews with Yoko Ono, ex-wife Cynthia Lennon, reporter and friend Eliot Mintz, and sons Julian and Sean.  What emerges is one of the more introspective portraits of a very public figure ever released.   

The film may ostensibly be about Lennon, but it also dives into the origins and cultural impact that The Beatles had on Western culture.  Whatís really shocking to consider, in pure hindsight, is how short-lived the groupís time was: They were together for only six ever-so-short years, but their impact was unmistakable and unparalleled.  Before their breakup in 1970 The Fab Four became one of the most commercially successful and critically lauded pop and rock bands in history of music.  In the UK they released more than 40 different singles, albums, and EPs that reached number one status and their success there reached out to other nations.  Of course, in now legendary fashion, the Beatles exploded in the US in the mid-1960ís, ushering in the British Invasion with their appearance on Ed Sullivan, and the rest was history. 

Itís easy to dismiss the impact the group had on music, not to mention Western culture as a whole.  Their initial forays into music was 1950ís rock (Lennonís fondness for Elvis is revealed in the film when he comments on the fact that, without Elvis, there would have been no Beatles), but the group then explored so many other divergent genres, like country to psychedelic rock, the latter being one of their more longstanding contributions to pop culture.  Beyond music, their clothes, wardrobe style, and their oftentimes polarizing political statements (as was the case when Lennon then infamously stated that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus) made them news makers and trendsetters.  As the group progressed you can see their music and growing social awareness help spawning social revolutions well into the 60ís and 70ís.  Itís no wonder that Rolling Stone Magazine rightfully ranked the group Number One on their list of the Greatest Groups of All-Time.  No doubt, their influence and impact on pop culture was unmatched by any other musical group, not to mention the ubiquitous popularity of their music (it has been stated that, by 1985 Ė 15 years after the groupís demise Ė that the Beatles sold over a billion albums). 

IMAGINE chronicles much of the rise and fall of the Beatles, but what about one of its initial founders, the Liverpool-born John Wilson Lennon?  Lennon was brought into the world on October of 1940, the very same day that Liverpool underwent a German air raid attack.  His parents were divorced when the lad was four and he was subsequently passed on to his Aunt Mimi to raise.  Lennon recounts in the film how he later reunited with his mother in his teens, only to see her die tragically at the hands of a drunk driver, who happened to be an off-duty police officer.  The matter-of-fact manner with which Lennon recounts this is both sad and revealing: it no doubt gives some insight into the forging of his musical career (ďAll art is expressing pain itself,Ē he would later comment) and into his willful disobedience of authority.  Clearly, his motherís death would help propel the intelligent and trouble-prone artist that Lennon would eventually become. 

The filmís footage then chronicles Lennonís fateful first meeting of Paul McCartney, a childhood friend whom he chose to play alongside him.  The two together would then forge the band we now know as the Beatles.  Along with the instrumental help of manager Brian Epstein, Paul and Lennonís new group shot to the top of the charts in the UK and culminated in their landmark landing in the US. 

IMAGINE does a thoroughly decent job of encapsulating Lennonís Beatle-era life, which became one of nearly unattainable wealth, fame, fortune, and controversy.  Perhaps whatís most incredible about this period is the manner with which then young Lennon is able to shrug off his newfound celebrity status, not to mention personal attacks from the media, with his acerbic wit and scathing sense of humor.  His frequently displayed insubordinate personality and irreverent good nature occurred in TV interviews, in films (especially in A HARD DAYíS NIGHT) and even in concert.  During a Royal Variety Show performed in front of royalty, Lennon hilariously deadpans Ė as shown in the footage Ė to the audience, ďThose of you in the cheaper seats can clap your hands. The rest of you, you'll just rattle your jewellery.Ē  Not even the presence of members of the Royal family intimidated Lennon away from social commentary masked in a humorous aside.   

IMAGINE also reveals how the adulation and worldwide fame that the Beatles achieved slowly unraveled them.  I stared with fascination at the rare footage of the group working on their LET IT BE album, which showed the members looking tired and bored with one another, which is remarkable seeing the albumís end results.  It is the groupís six year lifestyle of living under the radar of fortune and fame that subverted their more simple desires to be musicians first and celebs second, which perhaps was their undoing.  

That, and maybe Yoko Ono. 

Lennon and the then avant garde artist Ono engaged in an affair that destroyed his marriage to his first wife, Cynthia, whom they both had a child together with, Julian.  Lennon remarks on how he felt his first exchange of nuptials was perhaps attributed to youthful naivetť, not to mention how it broke down when the Beatles became famous: being a heartthrob is hard when the female fan base that lusts after you know youíre married (which was a semi-guarded secret).  While Cynthia was away in Greece Lennon invited Ono to his home where they spent the night recording what would become THE TWO VIRGINS album (which infamously has the pair fully naked on its album jacket) followed by morning lovemaking.   

The relationship between Lennon and Ono is given the most weight in IMAGINE, and we see the pair releasing experimental albums while Lennon was still a Beatle.  Glimpses of footage show Ono being a constant presence during Beatle recording sessions, which apparently was a sore spot for the other members of the group.  After the groupís breakup Lennon and Ono regrouped and went back England to reside in the lavish Tittenhurst Estate where they began recording tracks for what would become IMAGINE.  One of the most hypnotic moments in the documentary is when Lennon gets on a piano and plays the album's now immortal title song; it gives instant goose bumps. 

It was during this creative period where Lennon and Ono had their comings and goings filmed (either captured by their own hand held cameras or by a film crew).  IMAGINE, because of the type of footage shot, predates reality TV by several decades in the way it gave us access to celebrities that were once unheard of.  We get moments of tenderness (as is the case with Lennon playing IMAGINE on the piano or another small and discrete moment when he has George Harrison over for supper) and moments of bitterness (as is the case with Lennon exploding into vulgarities when a recording session is not going right).  The point of these images are decisive and swift: Lennon was a man that was extremely talented, somewhat humble, oftentimes confused and conflicted, and both happy and sad. 

There is one incredible bit of footage that also reveals Lennonís level of commendable humanity and care.  In it  he speaks to a young drifter that snuck on the Tittenhurst estate in 1971, believing that Lennonís songs were messages to him.  Does Lennon get security to take this crazy and deranged man away?  No.  He invites the troubled youth to his doorway and has a heart to heart chat with him.  He allows the man to speak his mind and ask questions, to which Lennon frankly answers.  Lennon wisely points out to him that he, more often than not, writes songs for himself and his family and friendsÖand to make money; he canít be, as he later specifies, be something to everyone.  What happens next is extraordinary: He sees that the man is hungry and invites him inside to have something to eat.  Itís moments like this that reveal the humility and sense of disarming goodwill that made his later songs ring so true. 

There are other moments in the film that are enticing, as is the case with one altercation between Lennon, Ono and the right wing creator of Líil Abner, Al Capp, during one the coupleís peace demonstrations, in bed and in their pajamas.  Abner does come across as a bit of a pompous and arrogant stiff, but he does offer some decent debating points, which, at times, seems to throw off and trouble Lennon.  Then there is another moment where a New York writer very wisely asks Lennon whether his peace marches and activist work will save anyone, which is a good, legitimate question that Lennon shrugs off a bit too easily.  Much of this had to do with his August 1971 single HAPPY XMAS (WAR IS OVER) where he advertised the single on a Times Square billboard that read ďWAR IS OVER, if you want it.Ē  The interesting angle to this is that Lennon neither confirms nor denies that the advertising has both activist intentions and financial ones at that.   

All of the footage culminates with Lennonís heartbreaking death in New York in 1980, during which he decided to re-locate Ono and his young son to life a life of normalcy, which included things like going to the circus, seeing movies, and walking through public parks.  There is one instance where a complete stranger approaches Lennon in broad daylight, which is somewhat disconcerting when one considers Lennonís later death.  Ironically, it was his freewheeling goodwill, compassionate nature, and predilection to live normally in The Big Apple that could have been his undoing.  It's commendable to see Lennon try to live the life of a father with his son like any other ordinary person, but when your one of the Beatles and a cultural icon, Lennon left himself dangerously open and vulnerable.  If anything, Lennon lived his final days within a fantasyworld of being an ordinary gent and a family man, which was cut short but the gun of an angry lone nut. 

IMAGINE: JOHN LENNON is a melancholic and absorbing work that has not aged a day since its theatrical release in 1988.  It works best by not trying to be a travelogue into Beatlemania, but rather a poignant, touching, and incalculably revealing portrait of a doomed artist that had eminence, fame, trouble and controversy dog him during his life.  Moreover, IMAGINE never paints Lennon in simplistic strokes to allow for easy extrapolation: He was an artist, musician, poet, peace activist, and a decent, loving man that had compulsions that sometimes got in the way of rationale thought.  You leave IMAGINE both understanding Lennon a bit more while growing even more bewildered by his enigmatic aura.  Ever more illuminating is how painfully moving and distressing some of his words were.  His most eerie comment has to be when he points out - in a 1980 interview - ďMy work won't be done until I'm dead and buried.  And I hope that's a long, long time."  

Never more so have the musings of an artist been so cryptic. 

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