By Peter Travers
Updated October 10, 1988 12:00 PM

This documentary is not dedicated to those who’d like to see author Albert Goldman rot in hell for his biography, The Lives of John Lennon. But it might as well have been. Oscar-and Emmy-winning producer David (The Hellstrom Chronicle, Roots) Wolper and director-co-writer Andrew (This Is Elvis) Solt dispute Goldman’s view of Beatle John as a brutalizing, schizophrenic, anorexic, agoraphobic, alcoholic, homosexual, mother-fixated, wife-beating, child-neglecting, music-plagiarizing, junkie s.o.b. Does this make Imagine a whitewash? Only by comparison. Imagine shows Lennon stoned onstage in Toronto, raging at producer Phil Spector in a recording studio and mocking his guru image to a fan who invaded his country estate at Tittenhurst. Astonishingly, much of this off-guard footage comes from 200 hours of never-seen tape given to the filmmakers by Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, who received no approval rights in return. It was Wolper and Solt who decided what to use. (Mercifully they chose to pass on a slow-motion film by Ono of a Lennon erection.) Imagine also includes interviews with Ono; Lennon’s sons, Julian, now 25, and Sean, 12; Mimi Smith, the aunt who raised him; his first wife, Cynthia; and associates who own up to John’s failings but deny his alleged psychoses. It is disturbing that Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr declined to participate even after seeing a rough cut of the film. But Imagine, a treasure trove of a film, can survive that loss. Even cut down to size, Lennon casts a giant shadow. The film possesses a crucial element that the Goldman book does not: the voice of John Lennon. The Ono tapes allow Lennon to narrate his story, virtually taking the stand in his own defense. The self-deprecating wit in that voice, the passion with which he expresses his commitment to peace and family come through not just in his narration but in his music. It is the music—nearly three dozen songs from his Beatle and solo periods—that earns the movie a place in the time capsule. This is the Lennon genius, the area where he cannot be challenged. This was the creative flow stanched by Mark David Chapman’s bullet in 1980. (Lennon would have been 48 on Oct. 9.) This is the reason we relics of the Love Generation can be forgiven a lump in the throat watching John rip through Revolution with the Beatles, rehearse Jealous Guy in the studio or sing a few a cappella bars of Imagine to friends on his lawn. In those moments, it’s just like starting over. (R)