Film review: Imagine: John Lennon

Published: Saturday, Oct. 29 1988 12:00 a.m. MDT

How you will take to "Imagine: John Lennon," a new documentary about the ex-Beatle who was assassinated some eight years ago, has a lot to do with your preconceived notions of the man.

If, as I did, you grew up with the Beatles and then stuck it out with Lennon through some of his weirder periods, retaining a love for his music, "Imagine" will be like flashing back, and there's no question that it works on a nostalgia level.

But if you perceived Lennon as simply a radical rocker whose decadent lifestyle overshadowed his musical accomplishments, this film is not likely to convert you.

And "Imagine" is far from a perfect film, glossing over certain aspects of Lennon's life, and with a narrative structure that jumps around occasionally without transitions, taking for granted that the audience is basically familiar with his life as a Beatle and beyond.

That said, however, there is a tremendous power to this film - it has humor, poignancy, tragedy and a sweetness that is hard to resist. But mostly it has those songs Lennon wrote and sang, ultimately the glue that not only holds the film together but gives it a tremendous boost.

Reportedly, Yoko Ono had boxes of film that she and Lennon had shot of their life together over the years, and she just turned it over to producers David Wolper and Andrew Solt (Solt also directed and co-wrote the film). Ono had no approval rights, but cooperated nonetheless with the making of the film.

The filmmakers say "Imagine" was not intended to answer the now-notorious biography of Lennon that is in bookstores, which is by all indications a real hatchet job. But the film is unquestionably a respectful, loving portrait of the artist as someone who was sincere in his work and his beliefs, and it manages to come at exactly the right time to counter the book's accusations about Lennon.

What we see is a poet of the '60s who became caught up in a phenomenon known as the Beatles, which was so overwhelming no one could control it. Lennon himself is shown to be a loving, gentle man who really did believe in the peace movement he perpetuated in the '70s, but who needed help in achieving motivation, and he got it _ for better or worse _ from Yoko Ono.

Lennon's warts are not completely ignored, as when he is shown petulantly chastising record producer Phil Spector, arguing with a New York Times reporter and during a confrontation with "Li'l Abner" cartoonist Al Capp, but ultimately even those moments show Lennon in a more favorable light than his attackers. Capp, for example, argues with Lennon and Ono during their "Bed-In for Peace" about their notorious nude album cover, making some sharp, funny satirical comments at first, but then makes himself look bad with some insulting cheap shots aimed at Ono. In the end he simply shifts our sympathies back to Lennon. There are interviews with Ono, their son Sean, Lennon's son Julian from his earlier marriage and even his ex-wife Cynthia talks to the camera. No one is bitter, however, even when Cynthia talks about the early days when she and Julian were hidden from the press, worried that John's being married would be harmful to the image of the Beatles.

That neither Paul McCartney, George Harrison nor Ringo Starr would be interviewed for the film provides an unfortunate gaping hole in the structure. But, of course, they all appear on film from earlier interviews.

One of the film's more amazing aspects is that through the use of some 100 hours of Lennon interviews, John Lennon's own voice narrates the film, and the incredible amount of footage provided by Ono gives us some surprising glimpses of their private and public life together and apart.

Some of those glimpses are incredibly self-indulgent, as with a scene that has them undressing and climbing into bed together. But there are many more that are absolutely fascinating, even eerie, as when a letter Lennon reads aloud predicts his assassination, and when Lennon confronts a transient who's been sleeping on his estate.

Ultimately, the film's message seems to be that Lennon was human and frail and weak _ just like all of us. But he was also a Beatle, and therefore subject to scrutiny in every facet of his life. (In a way this film provides quite an interesting indictment of the media and the way it probes the lives of celebrities.)

But in the end it's the music. From the title song, which we get to see in its embryonic stages as Lennon sings it for friends and then his backup musicians, to the over-the-end-credits Beatles tune _ which has always been my personal favorite _ "In My Life."

"Imagine" paints a favorable picture of John Lennon, but it doesn't deny most of his more prominent faults. It does celebrate his art, however, and that is more than enough to make the movie worthwhile. The rest is frosting on the cake.

"Imagine: John Lennon" is rated R for some profanity and nudity.