Monday, October 4, 2010
Imagine: John Lennon
If John Lennon hadn't existed, I suppose somebody somewhere would have had to invent him. In a single person, so many different, even contradictory strands of cultural and rock 'n' roll history come together. He's the elusive enigma and world-famous pop star, the clown and the martyr, the icon and the individual, the 60s totem ("Give Peace a Chance," "All You Need is Love") and 60s skeptic ("I don't believe in Beatles...the dream is over," "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow.") For all that he came to represent, there were few celebrities more purely themselves, even if that "self" was remarkably fluid. As I once wrote about Lawrence of Arabia, "It is a recurring theme of biography that the character of great men can be elusive. Personality is strong, but identity is not so easy to pin down; identity is the luxury of modest souls who find their niche in life and then burrow away."
Unlike a Dylan or Bowie, whom we suspect were trying on different roles without entirely committing, Lennon always seemed to fully believe whoever he was in the moment, be it macho Liverpool teddy boy, intellectual art student, witty surrealist pop star, psychedelic hippie guru, decadent rock star, or avant-garde advocate for peace. And then, finally, unexpectedly, he was gone - and the role of gunned-down hero, with whom the last embers of a flickering dream were extinguished, seemed to grimly suit him as well as any other. Had he lived, John Lennon would have celebrated his 70th birthday this coming Saturday. John Lennon: Imagine, which was released this week twenty-two years ago, celebrates what should have been only half a life but instead, ended up being all he and we would get.
It's a good solid documentary, though as Roger Ebert pointed out at the time, what we are seeing is more in the nature of home movie than prying cinema verite: this is the image Lennon wanted us to see - even the "private" moments (caressing Yoko, both of them naked) were quite consciously meant to public. Coming out around the same time as a viciously "tell-all" book about Lennon, the movie retained the patina of damage control, particularly as the Beatle's widow gave her full blessing, bound to raise red flags for many observers. Still, the movie is fairly frank at times - we see peeved and confused Lennon as well as peaceful or happy John - and it allows objecting or dissenting voices to have their say, resulting in some of the most interesting moments in the movie.
In one of these, the right-wing cartoonist Al Capp pays a visit to John and Yoko's Bed-In and proceeds to pugnaciously puncture what he sees as their hypocrisies and generalizations. For a moment, one may be amused by his schtick - after all you don't have to be the author of L'il Abner to think there was something potentially silly and a bit sanctimonious about the various peace stunts (indeed, a New York Times reporter raises similar points in an exchange with Lennon which seems to get under the singer's skin even more than Capp's visit). But before long, Capp turns despicably nasty - referring to Yoko as "that" and sneering that he's sure the other three Beatles are English as if by marrying a Japanese woman, Lennon had surrendered rights to citizenship. Through it all, the notoriously hot-tempered Lennon keeps his cool, admirably demonstrating a commitment to peace in action. Most bizarrely at the end of the clip, an effusive Timothy Leary, grinning on the sidelines, cheerfully embraces Capp.
The documentary is full of such rough-and-ready, fascinatingly unplanned moments - Gene Siskel wondered if one of the most memorable of these, John's encounter with a homeless druggie at his English estate, was "stage-managed" but it seems thoroughly genuine to me - poignant and slightly chilling (knowing what a deranged "admirer" would do years later). In this exchange, a clearly addled young man (who's been staying uninvited in Lennon's garden) nonsensically tries to interpret John's songs as referring directly to him, while the tired Beatle (who looks like he's just woken up and been shuffled outside) firmly but gently corrects the errant fan. "They're just words," he says, explaining how "you can penetrate anything you want" has no coded cosmic meaning, it was just a phrase he liked. At another point, amusingly, the acidhead mumbles something about, "And when you said, 'Boy, you're gonna carry that weight for a long time,'" and Lennon calmly corrects him: "That's Paul, sang that."
This is manifestly a Lennon doc and not a Beatles one, but more than half of its running length is devoted to John's time in the band. McCartney hardly figures except as a grinning moptop in the quartet - ironically, it's only when Lennon is tearing him down (recording the vitriolic, and at times insensible put-down "How Do You Sleep?"), with a bitter-looking George Harrison providing lead guitar, that Paul (or "Beatle Phil" as Lennon and Harrison cryptically refer to him in a sharp-edged conversation caught on film) gets full attention. The tensions between Mrs. Lennon and Lennon's former bandmate are well-known, so even though the focus is rightly on John, we can't help but feel at times that the vital yin/yang partnership between the two, so vital to giving the Beatles its chemistry, isn't quite given its due.
Another person Lennon left behind is given her due - and her interview is quite poignant. Cynthia, John's first wife, recalls how, on the way to see the Maharishi, she was carrying all the bags and couldn't keep up with the group. A policeman blocked her way and there the train was going off, with Lennon looking out the window at his wife disappearing into the distance. From the vantage point of 1988, Cynthia recalls thinking, "This is it - this is the stop I get off at," and indeed the missed train was symbolic. Within a year, the Lennons would be divorced and the Lennon-Ono partnership just getting under way. Yoko in the movie comes off far more sympathetically than she has often been painted; at any rate, it's clear that she was John's soulmate, far more suited to him for whatever reason than his first wife or even his best pals/Beatlemates.
John's youth was one long painful separation, first from his father whom he barely knew (and who at one point forced the confused child to choose between him and his mother, an anecdote that doesn't make it into the film), then from his mother who left him with his aunt, and then from his mother again when she was run over by a drunk driver just as they were beginning to reunite. One of the most fascinating and powerful aspects of John's career is how this underlying pain, more or less suppressed when his fame exploded on the world scene, slowly began to manifest itself in his music, at first almost secretly (few who heard "Help!" in 1965 would have suspected its truly desperate origins), then more suggestively (the hidden hurt of "Nowhere Man," the beautiful loneliness of "Strawberry Fields Forever") finally finding its full expression in the agonizing primal scream of Plastic Ono Band.
Yet Lennon never lost his sense of humor either; the two constants in his persona were the sensitivie sincerity and the cheerfully cynical clowning, neither of which ever completely gave way to the other. We see him singing "Imagine" and affecting a mock-solemn tone, as if a television huckster, on "I hope someday you will join us" only return to earnest falsetto on "and the woo-orld will be as one." In concert, he goofs around while performing the cri de couer "Mother" - these are confessions, yes, but they are also songs, and he is a musician, a craftsman, doing his job and expressing himself at the same time.
The film ends as it must, in New York in 1980 (thirty years ago this December) when John, smack in the middle of a big publicity push to promote his first album in five years, was shot down by a lunatic who heard voices. The killer's religious fanaticism may have played a role in the assassination, giving an even more chilling edge to the "We're more popular than Jesus" passage in the film, in which some Klan-hooded shithead boasts about being part of a "terror organization" and warns that the Beatles better be prepared for something "big." That may have been the first time Lennon fully realized the nature of the dragon they were all riding, how it could bite back as well as soar high; we can see the fear in his eyes at the press conference, the unspoken "Where the hell is this all going?" clearly on his mind.
Lennon died three years before I was born, so I never got the story in pieces or as a constantly unfolding, shifting drama the way his contemporaries did. To me he was always a tragic figure - and one a little bit spooky too - from the first moment I saw his animated avatar in Yellow Submarine. There, the character emerges when a Frankenstein monster drinks a smoking vial and then - sizzle! flash! - he morphs into a mustached, granny glasses-wearing John. My parents, who were watching with me, explained (or remarked amongst themselves, but I was always listening to such remarks) that John was dead, how sad it was, he'd been murdered (I still remember that was the word they used, not killed, shot, or assassinated). So there he was all at once - the mystic, the martyr, the musician, the monster, the man: John Lennon. Happy birthday, John - wherever you are; I hope someday we'll join you there...