To track the transformation of John Lennon from adored Beatle to government-stalked peace advocate is David Leaf’s stated intention for “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” and the pic persuasively chronicles an artist sticking to his guns through activism. But by getting Yoko Ono to cooperate and open the vaults, the storyline follows the Ono-approved bio that posits Lennon as saint, excising his dark periods and their years apart, which could have enhanced the portrait. Lennon maniacs likely will flock to early screenings, and pic also should do well with the politically minded, though connecting anti-war goings-on during Nixon’s day with the current Bush-bashing is a stretch.
By isolating Lennon’s political life and eventually his role as doting father, Leaf and John Scheinfeld make it appear a singular focus for the man in his post-Beatles years. He was an idealist calling for world peace who realized “flower power” was a failure, and an artist whose use of direct language made him an ideal proselyte among the anti-war leadership populated by dogmatic rabble-rousers. “All we are saying/Is give peace a chance” was so clear and simple that it threatened the Nixon administration, which led to wire-tapping, surveillance and a deportation order.
“He was a high-profile figure, so his activities were monitored,” G. Gordon Liddy says matter-of-factly, a chilling reminder of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Liddy, however, is the one defender of the U.S. in this docu. The rest of the talking heads — all of whom had roles in Lennon’s life, from spokesman Elliot Mintz to Black Panther Bobby Seale to musicians, lawyers and politicians — expound on the government’s folly.
For the viewers who were there, “U.S. vs. John Lennon” will be a reminder of Lennon’s valor and no-retreat mindset; for the under-35 set attracted to the cogency of songs such as “Imagine,” “Instant Karma,” “Love” and “Revolution,” this could be a vital documenting of the government’s subversive behavior.
It starts a couple of weeks before Christmas 1971 as Lennon appears at a benefit for John Sinclair, an anti-war radical and manager of the MC5, who is doing hard time for selling two joints to an undercover cop. The FBI is aware of Lennon’s ability to sway crowds, and he has surrounded himself with radical friends, specifically leaders of the Yippies and Black Panthers.
Docu steps back to the Beatles’ first significant controversy, Lennon’s statement about the Fab Four having a greater impact in young people’s lives than Jesus, a statement that gets blown out of proportion and leads to many anti-Beatles rallies. There’s footage from Vietnam, peace marches and protests in London. It’s fascinating to watch the Beatles at a press conference when a political question is asked; Lennon goes full force in delivering an answer as the others grow viscerally uncomfortable.
Then he meets Ono.
“When he found Yoko, he found the rest of his voice,” Mintz says, and indeed Lennon’s activism blossoms. The occasional song at the end of the Beatles’ eight-year run gives way to a seven-day protest staged in their honeymoon bed. It was her performance art conceits finding a perfect partner in his celebrity, wittiness and ambition; they attracted attention and put words such as “bagism” into the vernacular.
That celebrity led to Lennon’s appearances on TV talkshows, allowing him access to middle-class America to discuss radical political thought. (What slips through the cracks here is the reality that Lennon has already changed the world in terms of music, fashion and art and now has his sights on politics and social order. He is only 30 years old.)
Sen. Strom Thurmond proposes pulling Lennon’s visa, claiming a pot bust in England made him an undesirable. Lennon is given until March 15, 1972, to leave the country, but he chooses to fight it with immigration attorney Leon Wildes, who sues John Mitchell and his cronies, charging conspiracy. In one of life’s happier examples of kismet, Lennon is given his green card on his birthday, hours after his son Sean is born.
Forty of Lennon’s tunes — 37 from his solo career — are used pointedly, out of chronological order and tied to the visuals thematically. Equally effective are the instrumental versions of his songs — the actual backing tracks minus vocals — that serve as a score throughout.
While the songs help paint a portrait of a man who relied on honesty and immediacy in his writing, the more one knows Lennon minutiae, the more jarring the out-of-sequence music will seem. But “U.S.” is not aiming to display the evolution of Lennon as a songwriter, but as an artist who turned personal experience into words with universal appeal.
Pic debuts at the Venice, Telluride and Toronto festivals before theatrical release Sept. 15. It also will run on VH1, which helped with financing, as part of its rock documentary series.