Since John Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono has been a very deliberate caretaker of the man’s considerable legacy. Through a series of albums, books, a TV-movie, and even a recent star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Yoko has kept Lennon’s presence felt.
One thing she couldn’t control was the wholly unauthorized biography of Lennon written by Albert Goldman, published a few weeks ago. Goldman, who trashed Elvis Presley in a notorious book earlier this decade, spent more than five years writing his Lives of John Lennon. I haven’t read the book, but Goldman seems to have unearthed many nasty bits, some of which have been denied by the people involved (and many of which had been admitted by Lennon all along).
But the resourceful Yoko has come up with a reply to Goldman, in the form of a feature film. (Everyone denies that the film is a response to Goldman’s book, but the timing is too perfect.) Yoko went to producer David Wolper and director Andrew Solt and turned over more than 100 hours of audio tapes, video, and film, all from John and Yoko’s private collection.
The movie that Wolper and Solt made from the footage (and other available materials) is Imagine: John Lennon. It’s a largely predictable, but unavoidably fascinating film.
Lennon was part of one of the century’s most amazing cultural phenomena, but even if The Beatles had never happened, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Lennon would have been a remarkable man. This film does not attempt to float a halo over his head, although it is highly laudatory. By revealing him in moments of anger, pettiness, and foolishness, the film simply acknowledges Lennon’s complexity; he was a man much greater than the sum of his parts.
There is a healthy does of music, both Beatle and solo, and there are interviews with ex-wife Cynthia and Yoko, and sons Julian and Sean. But the major attraction of the film is the home-movie quality of the newly-seen footage.
Much of it is offhand, showing Lennon noodling around with songs that would eventually become familiar. There are revealing moments of Lennon’s petulance, such as a conversation between John and George Harrison in which they derisively speak of Paul McCartney as “Beatle Ed” before cutting Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?”—a caustic jibe at Paul.
During John and Yoko’s famous bed-in for peace, they are visited by cartoonist Al Capp, who had become a raving reactionary late in life. Capp assails the couple, and openly insults Yoko in racist terms. John really must’ve been into peace, because he would have been perfectly justified in slugging Capp.
And there are eerie passages. At one point John reads a letter from a fan who had consulted a Ouija board and deduced that Lennon would be assassinated. In the movie’s oddest sequence, Lennon talks to a flaky chap who’d been shadowing the star’s estate, and who felt that John was speaking to him through the music. Lennon compassionately brings this poor soul down to earth, then invites him in to breakfast.
Imagine is consistently intriguing (though, as George Harrison said of it, there’s a bit too much Beatles stuff, buoyant as that is). It is not a lofty or great documentary, but there’s enough of value to whet one’s appetite for the other 99 hours.
First published in The Herald, October 1988
We are on the verge of Peter Jackson’s multi-hour revamp of the Let It Be footage, so this seemed worth digging out. “Beatle Ed”—very funny.