‘Imagine: John Lennon’: An elegy for a musical great

This year marks a number of different Beatle-related anniversaries: the 70th anniversary of John Lennon’s birth, the 30th anniversary of his death and the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ break-up. With this in mind, I thought I would look at a documentary on Lennon, “Imagine: John Lennon,” for this week’s column.

The most revealing moment in “Imagine: John Lennon” is also one of its strangest. After the break-up of the Beatles in 1970, Lennon and Yoko Ono started living in a house in the English countryside. Ono said many Beatle fans would flock to their home, hoping for a glimpse of Lennon, who had always roamed freely in public and embraced his admirers when they spoke to him.

In one moment, we find out a pair of fans have been living in the Lennon’s bushes for weeks. When they are discovered, Lennon speaks with them candidly outside his front door. One of the young men is convinced that there are messages in Lennon’s songs meant for him. Lennon calmly tells the young man that he writes only about himself or “at best Yoko, if it’s a love song.” The young man persists; “Like when you said ‘boy, you’re gonna carry that weight for a long time.’” “That’s Paul saying that,” Lennon tells him.

After talking for a while though, Lennon tells the young men that they look hungry and invites them in for a meal. The encounter reveals a great dichotomy of guardedness and compassion within Lennon; we see the impulse to protect himself and his family, but also a sense of responsibility for his fans and, at times, for the larger culture around him.

The complexity of Lennon is well explored in the documentary, which includes home movie footage from the musician’s personal archives. There are also interviews with his family, including Ono, their son, Sean, Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, and their son, Julian, as well as some of his old associates.

Lennon was famous for being a rabble rouser, but “Imagine” captures some of the quieter moments of his life. It touches on the formation of the Beatles, the key moments of the group’s recording history, the controversy of their break-up and plenty of events surrounding Lennon’s opposition to the Vietnam War, but the film is at its best when it goes behind closed doors, exploring obscure aspects of Lennon’s character and personality.

The film follows the narrative path of Lennon’s life; his turbulent, lonely youth living mostly with a close aunt after his parents’ divorce; his escape into music and development as a songwriter; his days in the Beatles, bemused by the phenomenon they became; and his meeting of Yoko, who he started to look at more as an extension of himself than just a lover.

The film also tracks Lennon’s course through the anti-war movement. He and Ono famously held a press conference in their bedroom to protest the war. In the film, we see Lennon go toe-to-to with Al Capp, right-wing creator of L’il Abner, who fulminates about the Lennons’ amoral lifestyle. The scene is funny, because Lennon does such a hilarious job of pushing Capp’s buttons, and revealing, because we see how petulant Lennon becomes when the same is done to him.

Throughout most of the film, Lennon comes off mostly as a cheerful, whimsical man, tormented about the present but optimistic about the future. Like all zealots though, he has moments of profound anger. In one, he rails against a New York Times reporter who insists Lennon doesn’t understand the peace movement since he lives in a position of privilege. Watching Lennon engage in a verbal battle with the reporter, we see true disgust pour out of him, disregarding how he might look for the camera. I was reminded of the great scene in “Don’t Look Back” when Bob Dylan squares off with an angry journalist, refusing to tell him what he wants to hear.

“Imagine,” made eight years after Lennon’s death, doesn’t have the uncompromising quality of “Don’t Look Back,” though. The filmmakers have a clear admiration for Lennon and some of their choices make the film feel more like a requiem than an exploration of a complex man. Some of the musical performances featured in the film feel curiously out of place and unnecessary. And while the interview footage is sad and revealing at times, I feel like we could have done with less of it; no one sheds that much interesting light on who Lennon was.

But, like most music documentaries, “Imagine” succeeds because of the strength of its subject. Lennon achieved intense popularity at a very young age, and clearly felt the need to do something significant with it. Unlike musicians of today who take up causes for public relations purposes, you can feel the fire and conviction beneath Lennon’s actions. He acknowledged the influence he had on the world, and felt a responsibility to do something positive with it.

Dennis O’Neil can be reached at 270-887-3237

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