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‘Imagine: John Lennon’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 07, 1988


Andrew Solt
John Lennon;
Yoko Ono;
George Harrison
Under 17 restricted

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As an artist, John Lennon's one true subject was himself. It was perhaps the only subject he knew really well, and in his best music and, occasionally, in interviews, the frankness of his self-regard had a revelatory, pioneering force.

Lennon was poet laureate for a generation of narcissists, and he helped rock mature into a forum for personal explorations and reflections. And like all narcissists, he was obsessed with image, and spent a great deal of his life projecting one face or another, one "self" or another.

The project for anyone hoping to construct a profile of the artist out of this proliferation of selves is a daunting one. "Imagine: John Lennon," Andrew Solt's flattering but uncomprehending documentary portrait of the rock artist, aspires to a presentation of the man, but settles instead on one of the masks -- and the least interesting one at that.

Created in collaboration with producer David L. Wolper -- at the instigation of Yoko Ono -- out of hundreds of hours of film and videotape footage, photographs and recorded conversations, the film uses Lennon's own recorded voice to guide us through the artist's life, jumping backward and forward in time (sometimes carelessly) to cover his days as a Liverpool tyke, and later a Mersey tough; through his early days in Hamburg; through the Beatlemania years, the studio years and the breakup years.

Lennon's Beatles period is seen as precisely that -- a stage in the artist's development. But as might be expected, greater emphasis is given to the years with Ono, when, if the movie's point of view is to be taken, Lennon grew to his full height as a creative force.

The song "Imagine" is presented here as a culminating work -- the fullest, truest expression of Lennon's artistry. (Ono deems it the "crystallization of John's dream.") And it is the pinnacle achievement for this Lennon -- the Lennon who raised billboards declaring "War Is Over (If You Want It)" in Times Square; the Lennon who honeymooned in bed for peace, with Timothy Leary and the world press in attendance; who composed "Give Peace a Chance" and marched and spoke and zipped himself into a bag for peace.

It is also a portrait of the Lennon who thought quite naturally of himself as someone with whom the whole world was infatuated, and who, as a result, became a pontificating, radical chic bore -- Lennon, the Pedantic Beatle.

Solt seems not to have realized how badly Lennon comes off in some of these scenes, particularly the incomprehensibly long one in which cartoonist Al Capp visits the newlyweds in their honeymoon suite and accuses them of being, among other things, hirsute and presumptuous. And about three-quarters of the way through, there's another encounter -- a showdown between John, with Yoko at his side (naturally), and New York Times reporter Gloria Emerson -- that almost by itself makes the film worth seeing.

The aspects of Lennon's personality that were most attractive -- his fabled cutting wit, for example -- aren't much on display here (it's most evident in the footage from his Beatles press conferences). Instead, "Imagine" asks us believe that Lennon was important not so much for his music, but because he sent acorns to world leaders and asked them to plant them in the name of peace.

As a result, the film alienates us from its subject -- though not completely. So much of the stuff on screen -- for instance, the rare footage of the Beatles performing at the Cavern -- is new (or was to me) that for fans it's like dying and going to Heaven. But we keep returning to John and Yoko, wandering around their Tittenhurst estate like an art world Sonny and Cher, and that brings us back to earth. In the end, we feel as if we've had quite enough of John Lennon, thank you, and a gracious plenty of Yoko Ono too.

Even though lip service is given to Lennon's drug abuse and violence, we can't help feeling duped. In his introduction to the book that is being released as a companion to the movie, writer Sam Egan praises Lennon for his honesty, claiming that it was "his credo and had to be ours as well." And Lennon's honesty -- particularly his honesty about himself -- was the best side of him. But there was a self-deluding, self-promoting side as well, and it is from this part of him that the movie springs.

The filmmakers' stated aim was to "tell the story of a man," not to "canonize a legend," but the man is not there -- and neither is the artist. "Imagine" gives us the official John Lennon; the songs give us the real one.

"Imagine: John Lennon" contains some insignificant nudity and adult situations.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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