John was my Beatle. In the ‘60s, when I was a pre-tween in London and the Beatles were gods, you were required to choose your favorite. So I thought about it: Paul was too smiley, so was Ringo, and George was a bit taciturn. But John was complicated. He was acerbic and angry, but there was a tear in his voice. So I grew into my teens in a bedroom covered with pictures of John. Which could be why, even decades later, if an opportunity to see John arises I’m there.
“Imagine” — not to be confused with the 1988 “Imagine,” the posthumous documentary of Lennon’s life — is a pioneering full-length rock-album video. It was made by Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1972 to promote his second solo album since leaving the Beatles. Released in ‘71, the “Imagine” album topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. But it was also a promotional video for Ono’s album “Fly.” Recorded at the same time as Lennon’s, with the same musicians, in the same home studio, and released at the same time, it didn’t make the charts.
It was a time when the pair seemed joined at the hip. They did everything together. Remember that clip of the Beatles in the recording studio, where John sat at a piano and Yoko sat beside him? “If you love somebody, you can’t be with them enough,” John said in a 1969 interview. “There’s no such thing. We don’t want to be apart.” Though there’s obviously somebody behind the movie camera, they give the impression of being the only two people on Earth. Walking hand in hand through misty trees to the soundtrack of some of Lennon’s softest, most tender songs, it might be the Garden of Eden, before the snake with the apple showed up.
After divorcing Powell and marrying Ono in 1969, it’s remarkable how much of Lennon’s old, almost chauvinistic attitudes fell away.
“Imagine”, the opening song, Lennon would later say, was co-written with Ono — it was her concept. In 1964 — the year the “A Hard Day’s Night” movie came out and the Beatles were in the U.S. leading the British Invasion — Ono, a conceptual artist, published “Grapefruit: A Book of Instruction and Drawings.” The instructions would be something like, “Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in.” Lennon, a former art student, would meet Ono two years later at an exhibition in London. At the time he was married to fellow art student Cynthia Powell; their son Julian makes a cameo in the video. After divorcing Powell and marrying Ono in 1969, it’s remarkable how much of Lennon’s old, almost chauvinistic attitudes fell away. It was a partnership of equals.
The house they bought in 1969 serves as much of the film’s backdrop. Tittenhurst in the English countryside was an enormous white mansion with cavernous rooms, a recording studio, patios, park and grounds. The lake they row across in the film was something Lennon added. Ono had the gardeners plant flowers that were only black or white. The best-known footage is of Lennon sitting at a white grand piano in a vast white room, while Ono, in a long white gown, walks slowly from one huge window to another, opening shutters to let the daylight in on an otherwise empty space.
“Imagine no possessions,” Lennon sings. Critics bristled at someone living in such splendor preaching the joy of having nothing. Same with the garden-party footage accompanying “Crippled Inside,” its VIP guests including Andy Warhol and Miles Davis. Irony? Well Lennon definitely had a dark sense of humor, but it seems more an example of the idealistic, almost childlike naivete this film displays.
The locations change, jumping countries, mixing real (a protest march in London and another in New York; talk shows in the U.K. and the U.S.) and surreal (a bizarre blindfolded game of pool and an even more avant-garde chess game). Unexpected celebrities (Fred Astaire?) pop up throughout though none — at least for fans who know the “Imagine” tracklist by heart — are as unexpected as hearing them punctuated by Ono’s songs. “Midsummer New York,” “Mind Train,” “Don’t Count the Waves” and “Mrs. Lennon” are as experimental as Ono’s visual art. Her style is quite the contrast to the soft beauty of Lennon songs like “Oh My Love” and “Jealous Guy.”
Watching this remastered, restored film a half-century later, one particularly moving moment stands out. It’s a shot of Lennon gazing across the bay at the Statue of Liberty. They’d decided to move to New York, Lennon sick of the British media plaguing him and its antipathy to Ono. Back home they had to hide in a mansion in the country. But here in New York he would be free to walk the streets and be left alone.
Tragically it wouldn’t work out that way.