I Saw a Film Today, Oh Boy
Imagine: John Lennon
Written by Sam Egan and Andrew Solt
Directed by Andrew Solt
At the USA Harvard Square
SOMEWHERE along the line, the makers of Imagine: John Lennon must have asked themselves the following: how do you make a documentary about someone so well known that he was, in his own words, "bigger than Jesus Christ?"
According to Imagine producer David Wolper, camera-wielding fans and interviewers made John Lennon the most filmed personage in history. His records and interviews revealed his most personal thoughts and feelings to a public that came to think it was on a first-name basis with him. How, then, do you make a documentary on a man's life whose most obscure details are universally known, especially when you have thousands of hours of footage from which to choose?
Sadly, the answers Imagine offers are not satisfying. Considering that Yoko Ono not only gave Wolper and director Andrew Solt access to countless hours of previously unseen footage but also gave them creative control over the final product, Imagine could well have been the definitive film about John. Unfortunately much of the footage is ill-chosen, and at an hour and a half, the film is much too short. Still, while Imagine fails as a comprehensive biography, it may help neophytes understand Lennon's appeal, and fans may find Imagine a poignant and occasionally amusing exercise in nostalgia.
Imagine puts to good use selections from hundreds of hours of tape-recorded interviews, allowing John to "narrate" the movie himself from beyond the grave and avoiding the need for an intrusive third-person voice-over. John's honesty and wit are ever apparent.
The film makes extensive use of John's "home movies," most of which were made by professionals. These offer a pleasant glimpse into John's househusband years that seems to refute the allegations in Albert Goldman's scurrilous new biography that John was less than a devoted father to Sean, or that he was anorexic, stoned or unhappy during those years. But the film fails to convince because it glosses over this period, just as it glosses over much of John's life in its headlong rush to condense all that John was into 90 minutes.
Central to the movie should be his music, but the filmmakers treat it with haphazard indifference. The song selection is bafflingly random, omitting seminal and important songs like "I Am the Walrus" or "Instant Karma" and including less noteworthy and more obscure titles like "How" and "Love." All the songs, even "Imagine" itself, are abbreviated, with the curious exception of "Twist and Shout," which Lennon didn't compose. Beatles producer George Martin, who expertly handled sound-mixing chores on virtually all the band's recordings and soundtracks over the last 25 years, should be strung up for the way he has remixed the music for this film, boosting the drums to the volume level fashionable nowadays and remastering the songs with a digital clarity inconsistent with the surrounding archival footage.
THE film is at its best in showing the effect John's celebrity had on both him and his fans. A scene from the early years of Beatlemania shows young girls melting into quivering puddles at a Beatles concert. During the "bigger than Jesus" brouhaha that lost the Beatles so many fans in the South, a girl says with unwitting prescience, "Some teenagers are gonna believe anything they say." As John comes to realize that he can indeed use his celebrity as a soapbox, he appears more self-conscious, winking and mugging at the ubiquitous cameras.
But there was a dark side to his fame. The film shows girls who had been reduced to jelly at a Beatles concert aggressively piling on top of the band's limousine after the show. John tries in vain to explain to a hippie who has invaded his country estate that he didn't mean for his visitor to respond to his songs in such a personal way. "I was just playing with words," he says. The scene is a chilling premonition of John's final encounter with the fan who would kill him, an event depicted in Imagine by a shot of a pair of glasses falling in slow motion to the pavement and shattering.
What follows is the most moving and powerful part of the film, the shots of the vigils that followed John's death. Seas of bereaved fans cry and sway while singing along with "All You Need is Love." Members of John's family talk about how much they miss him. Finally, there is a clip of John at a white piano in a white room, singing "Imagine." As corny as the sequence sounds, it concludes Imagine: John Lennon in a manner likely to make anyone cry who still mourns for John and his lost promise, as well as that of the Beatles' era.