Graying, 46-year-old Paul McCartney sat in his home recording studio in the south of England, watching his old partner, John Lennon, on a monitor. Lennon was recounting the cheer he used to lead the Beatles in, back in the days when the group was on its way up.
“When the Beatles were depressed, thinking the group is going nowhere,” Lennon said on screen, “I’d say, ‘Where are we going, fellas?’ And they’d go, ‘To the top, Johnny!’ And I’d say, ‘Where’s that, fellas?’ And they’d say. . . .”
Here McCartney joined in, syllable-for-syllable, with the filmed Lennon:
“To the toppermost of the poppermost!” they said together.
“It was an amazing moment,” said Andrew Solt, the man who directed “Imagine: John Lennon,” the documentary to be released Friday, and who brought the film to McCartney--as well as George Harrison and Ringo Starr--for approval. Although none of the three former Beatles agreed to be interviewed for the Warner Bros./David L. Wolper-produced project, all mostly approved of it, according to Solt. (They reportedly expressed some concern about the use of Beatles material.)
“Paul was very positive,” Solt said recently from his Sunset Strip offices. “You could tell by the way he reacted and was singing along that he was enjoying it. . . . He knew every one of John’s solo songs from all those years, and he was singing along with them, too. . . . Harrison had some comments about John having such a strong character. . . . and Ringo was very emotional and very broken up, very affected by the movie.”
The 99-minute feature, commissioned in 1986 by Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, opens just weeks after the release of Albert Goldman’s controversial Lennon biography, “The Lives of John Lennon.” (The book’s detractors, including Ono, say it is an unfair, brutal attack on Lennon.) Ono, reached on holiday in Geneva, Switzerland, called the timing “coincidental” and “a blessing.”
“It’s such a beautiful coincidence,” she said. “In the sense that the truth of what John was like is really revealed in this film, and that it came out at a time when somebody was trying to tarnish John’s image and bring out a fictional image of him into the world. The phony image of John might have stuck a bit if there was nothing counteracting it.”
Yet Solt, a copy of the Goldman work on his office coffee table, expressed concern that the timing might lead some to take the $6.5 million movie as a “whitewash” response to the book.
“The film is an open view of John that is basically showing us many different facets of his personality: the angry John, the outspoken John, the critical John, the hurt John, the outrageous John, the egomaniac John, the publicity seeker, the sensitive recluse,” he said. “If there had been film of John in some of the situations that the book claims he was in, we would certainly have used it.
“The toughest part was to try to be true to John, so that one can believe that if he had lived, he would have said, ‘You know, this is my story, thank God it’s not botched up. . . . this is who I was.’
“We tried to be true to him without trying to give a perfect Polyanna view of his life--a ‘St. John of Liverpool’ approach.”
Lennon “narrates” the film from about 100 hours of interviews--including David Sheff’s 22 hours of conversation conducted shortly before the musician’s murder in December, 1980. The story is not told chronologically, but rather is woven around the recurring theme of the “Imagine” LP recording sessions of 1972, using hours of film shot by Lennon and Ono in and around the studio of their Tittenhurst Park estate in England.
It was a time, Solt said, after the tumult of the Beatles breakup when Lennon was “in love with Yoko and for a moment things were more at peace and in balance than they had been.”
“We decided to try to tell John’s story in John’s words,” said Solt, whose past projects include “This Is Elvis” in 1979 (also for Wolper). “To basically let John tell his story directly to the audience, so the audience can decide. John was very, very honest about who he was. . . . (Goldman’s book) is such a skewed view of the guy, when (Lennon) really went out of his way to tell us what he was going through. I don’t think we were all duped by him for 20-some years, and it was big sham. I don’t buy it.”
Ono sought out Wolper to produce “Imagine” because she wanted, Wolper said, “someone tough--someone she couldn’t push around.” Ono explained that she was impressed by Wolper’s films on the Olympics and the Statue of Liberty refurbishing, and wanted someone “capable of having an objective eye” who would think more in terms of “larger communication that would include John Lennon fans as well as people who were not exposed to John’s work.”
Wolper’s role, partly due to heart bypass surgery, became one mostly of adviser, although he never intended to have much hands-on involvement, preferring to leave that to Solt and co-writer Sam Egan.
Ono, Solt said, felt “too close” to the subject to work on it herself, and provided access to film, video and tapes from the family’s extensive collection. Combined with newsreel footage, that gave Solt 230 hours of material with which to work.
Solt’s crew spent weeks viewing everything from an encounter with curmudgeonly “Li’l Abner” cartoonist Al Capp during the well-known “bed-ins for peace” in 1969, to, well, Lennon taking a shower in the late ‘70s. The Capp scene made it into the movie; the shower didn’t.
Lennon became “more accessible during his post-Beatle era,” Solt said, the result of his and Ono’s passion for capturing the details of their lives with cameras--"you know, the whole idea of the moment as art,” as Solt put it.
Lennon himself explains in the film, “As a Beatle, every song and every album and every record and every film was a diary of who we were at the time. Of course, we were in the dark about it till later. So when I got with Yoko, we were able to turn a light on in the middle of the creation of it.”
Probably the most arresting moment in the film comes during an encounter between Lennon and a long-haired kid who had been sleeping on Lennon’s Tittenhurst estate. In what eerily foreshadows the scenario of Lennon’s murder, the kid confronts the musician about how he thought Lennon’s songs were being sung just for him. Lennon patiently and compassionately tries to explain that such is not the case, then invites the vagabond in for breakfast.
Solt says happily that he would not change anything about “Imagine: John Lennon.” The net result?
“That it is,” he said, “an honest and complete picture of John.”
Such questions aside, it is likely that audiences will come away from the work with one impression of the complex man that was John Lennon. As McCartney said to Solt when the movie ended, warmly and with a twinkle in his eye:
“A good lad he was!”