The Beatles were the most popular rock-music group of all time. And their leader, John Lennon, was the most popular of the Beatles. He stayed popular - and controversial - after the group broke up, until his untimely death eight years ago. His memory seems more alive than ever, now that a new film about him has arrived. Its title, ``Imagine: John Lennon,'' is borrowed from one of his most famous songs, simply called ``Imagine.'' But the film doesn't just imagine the facts of Lennon's life. To a surprising extent, it puts those facts in front of our eyes - using home movies made by John and Yoko Ono, his wife.
When director Andrew Solt and producer David Wolper started work on the film, they had about 200 hours of intimate Lennon material on film, showing him at work in the recording studio and at play with family and friends. The movie also uses newsreel footage and filmed interviews.
What sort of person was Lennon? The irresponsible drug abuser that some people, including his latest biographer, claim he was? Or a husband and father who at least tried to be decent and mature?
The film offers no easy answers, but it provides material that may help moviegoers decide for themselves. The movie acknowledges that drug use was part of his life. It also shows Lennon saying on television, however, that drugs are behind him and that ``hope'' is a much better thing to carry one through life. The movie also gives a convincing picture of Lennon as a loving family man. He failed in this area sometimes; but he evidently aspired to a stable and even conventional relationship with his wife and his young son, Sean, who provides one of the movie's most touching interviews.
When it focuses on Lennon directly, ``Imagine'' is a fascinating biography, with a lifelike texture that seems all the more authentic since there's no narrator droning facts at us.
The movie lets Lennon, and people who really knew him, do all the talking. His own reminiscences go back to his childhood in Liverpool, and the family situation that surrounded him then.
Among those on hand are various family members, from the ``auntie'' who raised him to Ms. Ono, with whom he had a complex relationship. She has been a controversial figure with Lennon's fans, some of whom accuse her of breaking up the Beatles and being a negative influence on Lennon. She has also been credited with opening his creative life in new directions through her interest in unconventional and exploratory art.
``Imagine'' is partly a chronicle of Lennon's relationship with Ono, including their efforts to promote world peace - another argued-over aspect of John's career. Some said he was a hero in his protests against the Vietnam war; others felt he made a fool of himself.
The movie seems sympathetic to Lennon, but shows evidence that could support different viewpoints. The only certain things are that Lennon still fascinates people all over the world, and that ``Imagine: John Lennon'' is the most vivid portrait of him that anyone has yet given us.