U.S. vs. John Lennon

David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's “The U.S. Vs. John Lennon,” a more celebratory than revelatory documentary, traces Lennons metamorphosis from lovable Moptop Beatles to anti-war activist to inspirational icon, revealing the story of how and why the U.S. government tried to silence him.

“U.S. Vs. Lennon” premiered at three major festivals, Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, before opening theatrically via Lionsgate Sept. 15. The film also will run on VH1, which helped finance the production, as part of its rock documentary series.

The docu could not have been made without Yoko Ono's cooperation and willingness to disclose invaluable footage never used before (See below). But it also presents a problem: The film celebrates Lennon without much criticism or negative portrayal on any level. Not the last word about Lennon, his music, or political activism, “U.S. Vs. John Lennon,” is a step in the right direction, a movie that in its narrow focus is quite suitable for our politically-charged times.

Clearly, though the film is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the directors want the audience to draw parallels between the Nixon and the Bush administration in terms of conspiracy, manipulation, and what is now known as the culture of fear. Whether the audience will make this leap remains to be seen. What's certain, though, is that the docu will be embraced by the Beatles' fans since it contains wall-to-wall music of Lennon's best songs, a side benefit that's not to be underestimated when commercial appeal is concerned.

According to this intelligent, if also biased chronicle, Lennon used his fame and fortune to protest the Vietnam War and advocate for world peace. Primarily focusing on the decade from 1966-1976, “U.S. Vs. Lennon” places the celeb's activism–and the socio-political upheaval it represented–in the contexts of its time.

As was documented elsewhere, that decade was one of the most fractious and tumultuous in American history, dominated by the Vietnam War; the rise of the antiwar movement, the civil rights, New Left and other political movements challenging the status quo; the Nixon presidency; revelations of government deception, surveillance and harassment; and last but not least the Watergate scandal. (Incidentally, The years 1966-1976 also represent the last golden age of American cinema).

The film features a large, diverse array of the eras notable figures that bear immediate, often authoritative witness to specific events as well as to the prevailing climate. Among them: African-American political activists Angela Davis and Bobby Seale; journalists Carl Bernstein and Walter Cronkite; Nixon Administration officials G. Gordon Liddy and John Dean; Vietnam veteran and antiwar activist Ron Kovic; the historian/novelist Gore Vidal; former New York Governor Mario Cuomo; and three-term Senator and Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern.

But ultimately it's Lennon himself who is the documentarys preeminent voice and galvanizing presence. With Lennons own music providing incisive narration, the film captures a public and private Lennon that many viewers may not know, a principled yet funny and charismatic man who refused to be silent in the face of injustice.

As noted, Yoko Ono, Lennons wife, creative collaborator and partner in their campaign for peace, has given the filmmakers unprecedented access to the Lennon-Ono archives, enabling them to draw upon never-before seen or heard audiovisual materials in telling their story.

In a series of in-depth interviews, Ono shares her personal memories, evoking the realities of the couples daily lives; their hopes and happiness; and their long ordeal at the hands of the U.S. government.

Scrupulously researched and vividly illustrated, “U.S. Vs. Lennon” illuminates a little-known chapter of modern history, when a president and his administration used the machinery of government to wage a covert war against the worlds most popular musician. Exploring an era roiled by many of the same issues confronting us today, the docu aims to deliver a tale that speaks powerfully to our own times.

The prologue establishes the docu' setting, after which Leaf and Scheinfeld go briefly to Lennon's childhood, his association with the Beatles, the group's controversial visit to America and their musical-political reaction to the divisive Vienam Warsongs like “Give Peace a Chance” and “All You Need Is Love.”

An idealist calling for world peace, Lennon was an artist whose use of direct language made him an ideal leader among the anti-war activists. As a song and a slogan, “All we are saying/Is give peace a chance,” was clear, direct, and to the point. In fact, it was so effective as a combo of music and politics that it threatened the Nixon administration, resulting in wire-tapping, surveillance, and even a deportation order. “He was a high-profile figure, so his activities were monitored,” says G. Gordon Liddy, in a chilling reminder of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI.

Most of the witnesses played in one way or another roles in Lennon's life, from spokesman Elliot Mintz to Black Panther Bobby Seale to musicians, lawyers, and politicians. As such, they all criticize the government's illegal acts.

For young viewers, “U.S. Vs. John Lennon” will serve as a useful history lesson, a reminder of Lennon's personal valor and political mindset, since they may known Lennon mostly from his hit albums and songs such as “Imagine,” “Instant Karma,” “Love,” and “Revolution.”

The story perse begins just weeks before Christmas 1971, when Lennon appears at a benefit for John Sinclair, an anti-war radical and manager of the MC5, who served time for selling joints to an undercover cop. Soon, the FBI becomes aware and alarmed of Lennon's entourage of radical friends, specifically activists of the Yippies and Black Panthers.

Through flashbacks, the docu recreates the Beatles' first major controversy, Lennon's speech about the Fab Four having a greater impact in young people's lives than Jesus, a statement that gets disproportionate media coverage, leading to several rallies against the popular group. Interspersed in the docu is fascinating footage about Vietnam and the media both in the U.S. and the U.K., such as peace marches and protests in London.

Even back then, Lennon is more outspoken than his comrades. At a press conference, it's Lennon who tackles directly a political question, while his peers look uncomfortable; clearly, they would rather talk about their music and lifestyle than ideology.

Turning point in Lennon's life is meeting Yoko Ono. “When he found Yoko, he found the rest of his voice,” says Mintz. Significantly, after that, the occasional Beatle song gives way to a seven-day protest staged in their honeymoon bed. Ono's performance art finds perfect match in Lennon's celebrity status. Highly compatible, and determined to use their art and wit to political advantage, the couple begin to attract attention, which enables them to popularize their conceit of “bagism” straight into pop culture lore.

Lennon's well-documented on-camera appearances reveal a charismatic artist whose message of non-violence is perceived as a threat by the ruling elite. His publicity stunts (weeklong in-bed press conferences, the global “War Is Over” ad campaign) are simple yet shrewd and effective. But, expectedly, as Lennon gets more vocal in his anti-war stance, especially after teaming with Yoko Ono, Nixon's paranoia escalates, leading to government-ordered wiretapping, surveillance and a plot to deport them.

With fame and celebrity comes further media exposure. Lennon's increased appearances on TV talk shows enable him to put his musically-oriented politics into the living rooms of average Americans, and in the process to promote some radical political ideas. By that time, Lennon, barely 30, has become a new kind of celeb, affecting the worlds of music, fashion, art, lifestyle, and even American and global politics.

Senator Strom Thurmond suggests reclaiming Lennon's visa, based on the minor charge of a drug bust in England. They set a deadline for Lennon to leave the country–March 15, 1972. However, unfazed, Lennon opts to battle with the help of noted immigration attorney Leon Wildes. A tough negotiator, Wildes sues John Mitchell, charging conspiracy simply and bluntly. The Gods must have liked Lennon. Winning a landmark case, he is given the Green Card on a special day, his birthday, just hours after Yoko gives birth to their son, Sean.

What contributes to the docu is the dense soundtrack. Forty of Lennon's songs, 37 from his solo career, are used, not chronologically but to highlight the docu's thematic concerns. Some will criticize the out-of-sequence musical presentation, since it doesn't illuminate Lennon's evolution as an artist. However, to the filmmakers' credit, they have decided to deliberately limit their scope to a chronicle of the politicization of Lennon, as one of the world's most famous peaceniks.

Postcript

Looming large over the proceedings are the two 1968 political assassinations, of Martin Luther King, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy (the latter is the focus of Emilio Estevez's upcoming film “Bobby”). Standing his ground and eventually suing the U.S. government for harassment leads to the disclosure of Nixon's notorious black list of enemies. For the record, the Watergate break-in occurred in June 1972, and two years later, in August 1974, Nixon was forced to resign.

Though Lennon's 1980 murder in New York was not politically motivated, the tragic killing and the reaction to his death continue underline how Lennon's convictions were truly inspirational for generations to come.