As part of our John Lennon week we look at maybe the most intimate portrait of the ex-Beatle, shot whilst recording his legendary Imagine album.
“When you’re actually in love with somebody you tendd to be jealous and want to own them. Intellectually… owning a person is rubbish, I love Yoko, I want to possess her completely. I don’t want to stifle her, y’know, that’s the danger, that you want to possess them to death” – John Lennon
The above quote, taken from a scene where the Lennons are being interviewed by a journalist in the Tittenhurst Park mansion that they called home for a couple of years between 1969 and 1971 is not only one of the most revealing moments of the film, it’s also a candid insight into just where Lennon’s head was during the recording of probably his most famous solo album. Indeed, these sentiments would be distilled into the song ‘Jealous Guy’, of which more in a while.
And whilst ostensibly this marvelous documentary is about the recording of an album, repeated viewing shows it to be very much about that most famous of romances, one that still elicits a whole spectrum of opinion from Lennon’s global legion of fans and admirers, not to mention his detractors too. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a rock and roll marriage that even comes close to eliciting the same amount of steadfast vitriol as this one. It’s easy to forget that there was a whole level on which Lennon and Ono were simply two people who met, fell deeply in love, and decided they wanted to put each other at the center of their lives. On Lennon’s part this meant The Beatles had to come second. At the time it happened, just as the Fab Four were crumbling under the weight of egos, money, and nearly 10 years of living in each other´s pockets, he was probably completely ready for such a thing. At the time though it seemed easier and probably fitted a lot of people’s inherent prejudices against this strange, shrieking Japanese woman to blame her, and once the mud had been thrown it doggedly stuck.
This film, shot just over a year after Paul McCartney publicly declared the Beatles were no more, finds Lennon and Ono ensconced in some kind of domestic bliss, or at least as close as two of the most famous people in the world, and probably the most famous working musician in the world were likely to get. Ono is everywhere, fully involved with the recording process and unafraid to make her opinions known to Lennon, producer Phil Spector, or the cast of musicians who include fellow Beatle George Harrison, as well as Klaus Voorman, Nicky Hopkins, Alan White, and members of Apple records band Badfinger. I’ve seen it suggested that her constant presence in the film is due to her involvement in the editing process, but by all accounts, John and Yoko were fairly inseparable at this time and this would seem to be the real reason.
The truth is that Ono was having a profound influence on Lennon’s songwriting. There’s the aforementioned ‘Jealous Guy’, a re-write of a song originally called ‘Child Of Nature’ which was penned during the Beatles stay in Rishikesh, India whilst under the tutelage of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi some three years earlier. Re-worded the song becomes a searingly honest admittance of weakness, seemingly directed straight at his partner. ‘Oh My Love’ is certainly aimed at her, and not only that but, as Lennon would later admit by giving her a co-credit on the song, it was at least partly written by her. And then there’s the title track itself, whose lyrics were inspired by the Grapefruit book she had originally released in 1964. The book contains a series of “event scores”, a series of loose instructional aides to creative thought, one of which was “Imagine the clouds dripping. Dig a hole in your garden to put them in”. The lyric was also heavily influenced by a book of prayer he and Yoko had been reading at the time, and which had inspired various discussions regarding positive prayer, that what we imagine we can make true through our collective will. As he would later say the song “should be credited as a Lennon/Ono song. A lot of it—the lyric and the concept—came from Yoko, but in those days I was a bit more selfish, a bit more macho, and I sort of omitted her contribution”
The relationship aside, much of the real interest in the film resides of course in the music itself, and the glimpses of the creative processes that went in to making the album. We get delights such as John showing the band ‘Imagine’ for the first time and saying “yeah, that’s my favourite” afterward. We also see him playing his acidic dig at McCartney (with whom he was still publicly feuding at the time) ‘How Do You Sleep?’ for George, who plays on the track, and then telling him “that’s the nasty one”. We get flashes of his famous temper, particularly in the scene where he and Spector are recording extra vocals for ‘Oh Yoko’ and the engineer seems unable to find the right part of the song (“the end of the song is just like the fucking rest of it!”). And we also get to compelling footage of him laying down vocal takes for tracks like ‘Jealous Guy’ and ‘Gimme Some Truth’, the latter showing a technically-flawed but hugely impassioned and utterly spine-tingling vocal recording as Lennon does what he calls his “Eddie Cochran”, i.e. ripping at the edge of his voice. It’s this kind of footage which makes this film so utterly essential for any Lennon fan.
Ultimately though this is a snapshot of two extraordinary lives being lived as one at a time when they were still riding high on the cultural wave that burst out of the 60’s and would break on the rocks of that generation’s crushed optimism long before punk came along to clear the decks a mere five years later. The Imagine album is full of the kind of slightly naive idealism that permeated much of their public life at this time. Even the sound of the album is light, optimistic, the sound of riding on top of the clouds almost. With the knowledge we now have of the darker times in both their personal and public lives that lay ahead, this film can be seen as capturing John and Yoko during what might have been their happiest time together, both romantically and creatively, and for that reason as much as any it is an essential document of one of the 20th century’s greatest musical figures.
You can watch the full-length film below: