People say I’m crazy,
Dreamin’ my life away.
Trust the song and not the singer. “Imagine: John Lennon” (opening Friday at selected theaters) is not the definitive Lennon film or testament. At its best, it’s a sensitive tribute; at its worst, it’s a hero-worshiping whitewash.
But, given the treasury of music and material it offers us, it doesn’t have to be a perfect, untainted view. For anyone who loved Lennon or the Beatles, this film has the power and tenderness to bring you to tears.
It’s a collage of performance footage, home movies and interviews--mostly taken from Yoko Ono’s personal collection. It tends to give you the mask and the myth.
But the soul, darker, more turbulent and contradictory, peeks through anyway--mostly through the music.
With the Beatles or without, Lennon’s words sting, his guitar licks caress or bite, his singing cuts, whether it’s a concert version of “Help!” or a tense studio take of “Jealous Guy.” “Imagine” gains an immeasurable charge from his sheer presence.
The earlier Lennon had conquered the world with three lower-class friends from Liverpool. The later Lennon, for all his cachet of radicalism and social engagement, seemed weighed down by the race, eager to escape it, contemptuous of the mountains he’d climbed and somewhat unfair to the friends he had left.
When he was shot, it was a death that seemed, symbolically, to kill a whole era of youth and friendship, of impudence, idealism, wit, beauty and song.
Lennon--crippled inside at times by hate and jealousy--had tried to win the world with love. But it was another man’s hate, jealousy and profound misunderstanding that struck him back.
Living is easy with eyes closed,
Misunderstanding all you see.
All this is part of what we see in “Imagine.” The film has been sensitively assembled and backed by Lennon’s own words--and those of his relatives (his aunt, Mimi Smith, Ono, sons Julian and Sean and ex-wife Cynthia), his intimates and co-workers. It contains dozens of songs, beautifully remixed by Beatles producer George Martin and others.
But the portrait sometimes gets swamped in celebration. There are sentimental moments: the excruciating slow-motion tumble of Lennon’s glasses in the murder re-creation. There are exhilarating ones: Beatle clowning, John walking with his wife and son. There are surprisingly moving ones, like Ono’s sweetly stoical tribute: “He was my lover. He was my partner. He was an old soldier who fought with me.”
Yet, as producer David Wolper and director Andrew Solt assemble the material, the movie consistently skips away from the dark side and plunges into the light.
Solt avoids most of those sordid crannies into which biographer Albert Goldman wantonly plunged. Lennon’s admitted heroin use is glossed over, with a brief, semi-"Just Say No” testimonial.
Ironically, it seems less Lennon’s image that is being protected here than Ono’s--perhaps less through design than gratitude for her cooperation. The question of her influence or negative impact is tactfully sidestepped, though George Martin is allowed to get in a few sour words about Ono’s self-appointed advisory role on “Let It Be.”
The major flaw of “Imagine” (MPAA-rated R for language, very brief nudity) is the absence of any interviews--not by the film maker’s choice--with the surviving Beatles: Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. In a way, it seems almost cruel: ultimate reinforcement of a symbolically destructive schism.
Solt has described the reactions of the others to their separate first viewings of “Imagine”: George watching quietly and thoughtfully, Ringo weeping unashamedly and Paul spontaneously singing harmony to all of John’s solo songs. It’s fitting.
The Beatles were, after all, a band: a whole greater than the sum of its parts, just as John Lennon was a person greater than the sum of his faults or strengths. It’s important to keep him in perspective, neither elevate him to godhood nor exile him to dope, indulgence and the gutter.
But is it too much to hope that this celebration would reawaken some of those harmonies in the surviving Beatles and us? Retune the song of buoyancy and love that they--and Lennon--once gave the world?
... Some are dead and some are living.
In my life, I’ve loved them all.
--John Lennon/Paul McCartney
A Warner Bros. presentation of a David Wolper production. Producer David Wolper, Andrew Solt. Director Solt. Script Sam Egan, Solt. Co-producer Egan. Supervising film editor Bud Friedgen. Songs by John Lennon, the Beatles.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
MPAA rating: R (under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian).
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