Whether you would call it the chance upshot of convenient happenstance or the meticulously prepared product of an incredibly enlightened foresight, John Lennon left well over 200 hours of film, video, and audio content that chronicled his life, conceivably to allow us the ability to piece together his existence and find the answers we've all sought in light of his tragic and senseless murder. He was enigmatic, in life as in death, but not by his own choice. Trouble and tribulation seemed to shadow Lennon from the very day of his birth.
John Winston Lennon was born on October 9, 1940, the very day Liverpool underwent an air-raid attack by the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. Following the divorce of his parents, four-year-old John was handed off to his Aunt Mimi to raise. Years later, he reunited with his mother during his teens but their time together was cut short when Julia was struck and killed by the car of a drunken, off-duty police officer. Clever but trouble-prone, John was usually on the wrong side of authority during his school years. Still, his angst and anger served as fuel for his creative bent.
"All art is pain expressing itself"
Music was John's chosen outlet and he excelled like few others. Choosing Paul McCartney to play alongside him, he set in motion the band that would become the Beatles. Initially pleased with success, thanks to the guiding hand of manager Brian Epstein, John and Paul wrote and performed songs of love and livelihood ("Love Me Do," "Twist and Shout"). Very quickly, the gleam of fame and fortune dulled as John and his band mates became trapped in their own world, one that was relentless in its demands and unforgiving of any missteps; their music quickly reflected their dilemma ("Help!" "I'm a Loser," "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party").
Although it seemed an eternity, the Beatles performed and recorded for just six short years. Their achievements during that time were phenomenal but the toll it all took was likewise formidable. Upon the band's breakup in 1970, John and soul mate Yoko Ono were free to explore life, separately and together, in a way that Beatlemania would never have allowed. Leaning to the avant-garde, John and Yoko freely experimented with art and music, releasing the controversial "Two Virgins" LP (complete with full-frontal and rear nude photos of the couple) and "Sometime in New York City." Upon relocating themselves to the lavish Tittenhurst Estate in Ascot, England, John and Yoko, under the watchful eye of producer Phil Spector and with contributions from former Beatle George Harrison, recorded the tracks of the "Imagine" album. During the sessions John and Yoko continued their practice of filming their exploits and experiences, either by their own hand or as captured by their ever-present film crew. Noting that the vast coverage and chronicling of Beatlemania had effectively recorded his lifetime while the band was together, he elected to continue cataloging his life and times in film, public and private, to provide an opportunity to later look back and learn more about himself and his purpose. As so was born the voluminous content that served as the plot and script of 1988's Imagine John Lennon.
Successful producers and documentarians David L. Wolper and Andrew Solt (This Is Elvis) were approached by Yoko Ono in 1986 and offered full access to Lennon's archives. Upon Yoko's acceptance of Wolper's stipulation that the film be theirs and not hers, the work of combing through the massive amounts of material began. The task was made more difficult by Solt's decision to have Lennon narrate his own documentary, a feat that would require Solt and editors Bud Freidgen and Bert Lovitt to integrate footage, still images, and music with Lennon's own statements and observations. The approach, though arduous, proved inspired as the final film offered viewers the opportunity to view Lennon's life through his own eyes and as commented upon in new interviews of Yoko, ex-wife Cynthia Lennon, reporter and friend Eliot Mintz, and sons Julian and Sean. Entertaining, edgy, and ultimately haunting, Imagine is a unique experience that is as much a sad goodbye as it is a celebration of Lennon's life and times. Purposefully steering away from repackaging Beatlemania for a new generation, Imagine reveals the stark downside of a renowned existence and the manner in which a clearly introspective yet vulnerable Lennon attempted to deal with it. Perpetually estranged from most everybody in his lifetime, he finally found his own peace, self-acceptance, and eagerness to press on, signposted with the 1980 release of his comeback album, "Double Fantasy," released only weeks before his death.
While it's difficult sit by and witness the comments of those who survived him—his wives and his children interviewed here—it seems plausible that Lennon himself would likely have grieved alongside them but soon would lift up his eyes and seek out his next opportunity for revelation.
"I'm not afraid of dying. I'm prepared for death because I don't believe in it. I think it's just like getting out of one car and getting into another."
Finally, Imagine John Lennon has found its way to DVD, fans certain to be happy to retire their well-worn VHS copies. Warner Brothers Home Video presents the film in a new deluxe edition, featuring the film in its original 1.85:1 theatrical widescreen format. The transfer itself, unfortunately, doesn't seem to have been as meticulously managed as fans might hope or expect. While it's expected the content will vary in image quality due to the origin of much of the source material, it's disappointing to see that the current interview segments are uniformly grainy. It suggests that no further restoration had been applied to this very important film, and that's just a shame. Likewise, the audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround mix, same as the former video incarnations. Again, it's curious why the track hadn't been up-mixed to a 5.1 presentation. So, those of you who were expecting a markedly improved presentation here may be disappointed.
There are some good extras, though, and they help make up for the unimproved presentation of the feature film. First up is "A Tribute to John Lennon: The Man, The Music, The Memories" in which we look back upon the making of the documentary with insight, anecdotes, and stills offered by Wolper, Solt, Friedgen, Lovitt, and Yoko. Although it only runs for 15 minutes, there's a tremendous amount of information provided in lieu of a feature commentary track. The "John Lennon Trivia Track" can be viewed as the feature runs, with informational sub- and super-titles appearing along the way (and definitely worth a second screening). There are several bits of previously-unreleased footage beginning with a single-camera capture of John performing an acoustic version of "Imagine." Then, the "Island House" footage brings us along for the selection, purchase, and construction of a small pre-fab building that Lennon wanted erected on the tiny island at Tittenhurst Estate (with a humorous quip caught when Lennon tells the proprietor, "Don't raise the price just because it's me, OK?"). The "John & Yoko: Truth Be Told" footage captures the couple sitting down for a candid interview with a BBC Radio reporter where teen sex is the key topic. Lastly, "The Headmaster Looks Back" is a candid interview with young John's former school Headmaster, William Earnest Pobjoy, where the authoritarian recounts his encounters with the insolent but inventive student. Inappropriately, the disc also highlights a trailer for Warner Brothers Home Video's upcoming release of the James Dean collection on DVD.
All in all, despite the technical drawbacks noted, this is a very competent and highly watchable disc, one that is highly recommended.
"My work won't be done until I'm dead and buried. And I hope that's a long, long time."—John Lennon in an interview on December 8, 1980, two hours before his murder.
Alas, it was his human and humane candor that set the stage for the ultimate tragedy, the final act that unfolded during a moment of his innate giving nature. And while it's not a happy ending to this man's life story, it's strangely albeit uncomfortably fitting for John Lennon. As a musician, an artist, an activist, a husband, and a father, Lennon was always searching for answers and committed to being a catalyst for world peace. This year, 2005, would have marked his 65th birthday, and it's refreshing to see that his work remains as relevant today as it did during his short time on this earth. As we look deeper into the artifacts of his life, we find that he had deftly provided the very answers he himself sought out.
"You either get tired fighting for peace, or you die. If everyone demanded peace instead of another TV set, then there'd be peace."