Part rediscovery, part reinvention, Imagine: John Lennon portrays Lennon the icon. There are enough personal glimpses to make it worthwhile, even moving -- but watching Lennon clown around with his mates in A Hard Day's Night might be a better way to remember the man.
The best thing about this biopic is the footage of Lennon in his Beatles days -- a witty young cutup who wrote songs that were whimsical, mystical, introspective, and mostly apolitical. Lennon's first overt political statement, "Revolution," which is included, was actually anti-political ("You say you want to change the Constitution / You better free your mind instead."). In 1968, that was a message that needed to be heard. Unfortunately, Lennon met mediocre avant-garde artist Yoko Ono that same year. Lennon always loved being the center of attention, but Ono encouraged his narcissistic tendencies, and most of Imagine: John Lennon focuses on the years when her influence on him was greatest.
After 1968 Lennon became more radical, and not in a good way -- posing nude with Ono on an album cover (an ill-advised move), lying in bed in a hotel room for a week "for peace," and getting busted for drug possession. He became a spokesman for the youth protest movement, which accomplished very little. The silly exhibitionism only lasted a couple of years, but it was probably the most important reason the Beatles broke up, and like his infatuation with Yoko, Lennon never totally outgrew it. He espoused Marxism and even dumber stuff like primal scream therapy (fortunately, we don't have to watch footage of that).
Since Lennon is one of the few famous people to ever believe all that crap, after his death liberals made him into a secular saint (kind of a rich kid's Gandhi) which is why the movie Imagine: John Lennon exists. The whitewashing requires some disingenuous moments: for example, footage of Lennon calling his best friend and partner Paul McCartney a "cunt" segues into an interview where he puts their feud in the past, glossing over the reality that the two didn't speak for years.
Hagiographies like Imagine had the positive effect of reviving Lennon's music, but their emphasis on his misguided political idealism leaves too little screen time for the most amazing success of his life: his creativity and chemistry with the Beatles. For years, the iconoclastic Lennon, the sensible McCartney, and the spiritual George Harrison -- three individuals who came from the same neighborhood but were very unalike in other ways -- sustained a creative balancing act. The diversity of the Beatles' talents made their albums great, and most of their solo work suffered without it.
Not that all of Lennon's music in the '70s was bad -- there are brilliant moments of introspection as well, and he had just released an enjoyable album, Double Fantasy, and was in comeback mode when he was murdered in 1980. Still, the years Lennon gave to marriage, radical chic, and partying are great for making biopics but seem to me a total loss. We lost the creativity that Lennon reveled in during the '60s, which is now all we have left of him. If there's one thing that comes through inadvertently in Imagine: John Lennon it's the difference between then and now. The Beatles poked fun at the solemn world of the '60s, but that world also nurtured them. The '60s were a time of creative exploration in many art forms, and dozens of musicians of that decade could be called "geniuses" without much exaggeration... all of them arguably more talented than anyone making music now. Lennon was a genius but he wasn't in a vacuum. We have lost that world.
Imagine: John Lennon does not fail to honor Lennon's memory (which would be unforgivable) but its emphasis is misplaced. John Lennon was great because his songs were great, and if he is remembered in a hundred years -- which hopefully he will be -- probably it will be as the "guiding spirit" of the Beatles, one of the greatest musical groups of all time.
Lennon was a dreamer -- but though he famously calls himself a dreamer in the song "Imagine," the crackpot utopian sentiments of that song are not his greatest legacy. In songs like "In My Life," "Across the Universe," "Strawberry Fields Forever," and "Watching the Wheels" (an unfortunate omission from the soundtrack) we hear the real Lennon -- a teenage rebel who doodled in class, a young adult who indulged his imagination by writing nonsense poetry, a lonely adopted kid who never got over his anger at losing his parents, but made peace with the troubled thoughts in his head, as he says in an interview: "I'm full of optimism... / I'm not insane, I'm not alone." Or as he says in the song: "Nothing's gonna change my world."