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By Lauren Wise
In 1971, John Lennon issued a No. 1 album and Top 5 single both titled "Imagine." The following year, Lennon and Yoko Ono self-directed a 55-minute film also titled Imagine, which included clips for all 10 of the album's songs plus two from Ono's Fly record, making it the precursor to the "long form" rock video.
Then in 1988, rock-hating author Albert Goldman penned The Lives of John Lennon, a widely discredited, scathing bio that painted Lennon as an anorexic drug addict and claimed that Ono purposely put cat poop in his bedroom slippers (that part is probably true). To counteract this negative publicity, Ono sanctioned a positive Lennon documentary directed by Andrew Solt (The Heroes of Rock and Roll, This Is Elvis). Both the film and accompanying soundtrack were called . . . Imagine: John Lennon. See the difference? To add to the confusion, the new documentary contained a handful of clips from the 1972 Imagine flick while the soundtrack album offered all the slow songs off the original 1971 Imagine album. So, all colons aside, two versions of Imagine videos, LPs, cassettes, laser discs and CDs have all co-existed and confounded Sam Goody's shoppers ever since.
Though aimed at the casual fan too young to remember the Beatles, too old to ever want to hear "Cold Turkey" again and too stupid to know "Imagine" was never a Beatles song, the 1988 Solt documentary had exciting, never-before-seen footage of Lennon recording at his Tittenhurst Park home studio. Where else could you see Lennon having breakfast with Phil Spector and George Harrison? Or watch him feed a homeless man camped outside his mansion -- ironically, the vagrant bore an eerie resemblance to future rock star archetype/moper Eddie Vedder.
When Imagine: John Lennon was released, much was made of the 200 hours' worth of John and Yoko home movies that the documentary was culled from. Considering all this, a stand-alone "making of John Lennon's Imaginealbum" video and DVD, which incorporated all of the recording footage, would seem like a great idea.
Unless, of course, you're Solt or Ono. Their idea of a "great idea" is to chop up the already released recording footage from Imagine: John Lennon, dig up less than 15 minutes of new film stock and throw in those inescapable clips from the 1972 Imaginemovie. You would be excused for banging your head against the wall if Ono and Solt named this new enterprise Imagine Too or Imagine: No New Footage.
Opting not to invite confusion with the other releases, they're instead calling it Gimme Some Truth: The Making of John Lennon's Imagine Album, though it retains the same artwork as the 1972 video, which is still in print!
Of the seven songs we see being recorded on Gimme Some Truth, only three capture the musicians actually working, while the rest feature Lennon doing his vocal tracks. No matter how brilliant a vocalist Lennon was, it all tends to look similar after a minute or two, especially when he's wearing the same shirt. So where are the guys from Badfinger? Where are the Flux Fiddlers? There's zero session footage for a handful of the album's hardest rocking songs. For "Crippled Inside," you get the same 1972 clip on its third go-around (since it also appeared on the John and Yoko/Mike Douglas Show tape Rhino released in 1997). Just how many times do we have to see the Lennons trying to steer a rowboat, anyway?
For most of 1970, the megalomaniacal Lennons kept round-the-clock cameramen the way most stars have on-call masseuses. Between both Imagine films, we see John and Yoko bathing, screwing and sitting on the crapper before breakfast. While it's possible there's no footage of "It's So Hard" or "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier" being recorded, its also highly improbable. "Soldier" isn't a particularly good song, but it is the closest Spector came to erecting a Wall of Sound on Imagine. It's also one of the last songs to feature sax great King Curtis, who was stabbed to death later that year. Surely, either one should've gotten the nod over yet another Lennon bowel movement. Maybe that's the problem -- maybe the remaining 200 hours of archival footage is just John trapped on the john yelling for Yoko while she dances in a misty field holding a fresh roll of Charmin.
As co-producer of the original record, Ono is far more of a presence than Spector, and very little is included here to contradict the notion that she ran the show. Acting as John's eyes and ears in the control room, but coming off like a tattletale, she tells him: "They're not getting what you're playing" and "They're improvising too much," after which John dutifully tells the musicians, "Stop improvising." George Harrison is among those "improvising," and one can only guess the amount of tongue biting that's taking place behind that ragged beard of his. Later that summer when he organizes the Bangla Desh concert, Lennon pulls out of a proposed appearance when Harrison specifically forbids Ono from performing.
Despite her divisive public image, Ono diffuses one potentially volatile situation during the "Oh Yoko" sessions. One always hears how brutal the Beatles were to studio personnel at Abbey Road, but other than a few impatient remarks on bootleg outtakes, these incidents have escaped posterity. Not so here. In a sequence already familiar to those who saw the Solt documentary, we can see all the peace and love exit Lennon's face as he glares directly at the camera demanding to know of engineer Phil MacDonald, "What the matter with you? It's the last fucking verse! The end of the song is the same as the fucking rest of it! . . . C'mon!" They should use this clip as a simulated trauma test for budding engineers who didn't quite have the stress tolerance to become cops.
Of the added DVD features, the English subtitles were apparently done by someone who doesn't know from rock stars, identifying everyone from Spector to Harrison simply as "man." Another DVD bonus is the exhaustive "Lennon album discography," collecting one audio sample from each LP. My favorite is "Radio Play" from Life With the Lions-- nothing more three minutes' worth of irritating clicking noises.
The last "DVD only" feature is a complete BBC interview with the Lennons primarily discussing sex and teenagers. Most of the noteworthy sound bites are already siphoned off for Gimme Some Truth. What you're left with is the Lennons being tested for microphone modulation and Ono making the observation that "loving someone you can't relax with is like eating a sausage with hate in your heart." Not exactly Master Po, but hey, it's all DVD gravy!
1998's four-CD Lennon Anthology and its one-disc distillation Wonsaponatime proved that you can cater to casual fans and avid collectors at the same time. Ono should've tossed the collectors a few more crumbs, or just reissued the other Imaginemovies on DVD, or just kept the cupboard closed altogether. To paraphrase the lyrics of "Gimme Some Truth": No short-haired-enterprising-wife-of-Beatle-John is-gonna-Mother-Hubbard-soft-soap-me!