The U.S. vs. John Lennon, written and directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, presents the title ex-Beatle as more than a messenger for peace. Herein, the filmmakers show how, between 1966 to 1976, his actions made him not only a controversial figure but also a national security threat that could tear down the imperialistic establishment that is the United States government.
The documentary spends much of its first hour building up Lennon’s profile just so. Interviews by former Governor of New York Mario Cuomo, former South Dakota senator George McGovern (he was referred to in the documentary as New York mayor despite no records indicating such), Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale, activist and philosopher Angela Davis, TV journalist Walter Cronkite, White House Special Investigation Unit operative G. Gordon Liddy, Vietnam War veteran turned activist Ron Kovic, and Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono among others paint Lennon as a larger-than-life iconic figure, a force of one shaking the foundations of a large government entity as it deals (with gradually declining success) a series of social disorders nationwide. With the volatile 1960’s and 1970’s as the backdrop, the filmmakers effectively milk every fabric of the decades’ social and political climates and events. Most prominently are the anti-war protests, with civil rights movement, underhanded federal activities and political corruption included in the mix.
It is difficult to contest the narrative, given the subject’s influence of millions and his exceeding fame. Lennon was a rebel all his life. Abandoned by his parents at a young age, he had reportedly rebelled against authority of any form. From school to government to anyone trying to tell him what to do or say. As a foretaste of Lennon’s eventual revolutionary turn, Leaf and Scheinfeld includes some anti-Beatles footage stemming from his infamous quote that the Fab Four were “more popular than Jesus”. The footage reactions, edited mostly for humorous effect, includes some made by members of the Ku Klux Klan and religious conservative who came off sounding nutty, and provoked a public burning of Beatles records and merchandise.
The film rolls full steam with the two week-long “Bed-In” protests, the second of which (held in Montreal; the film made no reference of either locale) led to a ‘live’ recording of the peace anthem “Give Peace a Chance” that was attended and participated in by numerous journalists and celebrities. This began John and Yoko’s active movements in the United States, appearing up at a benefit concert cum protest rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1971 in support of White Panther Party leader John Sinclair who was imprisoned for selling narcotics. The high dramatic point, and where the film proves its most compelling, is the efforts by the federal government backed Immigration Naturalization Service to deport John and Yoko from the United States on drug charges. This several-year battle, during which time the INS deferred the deportation date through successful appeals by Lennon’s attorney, is detailed with interviews by Yoko, attorney Leon Wildes and supporting footage showing the sheer injustice of the entire idea (not to mention the act).
I cannot help but feel that this Lennon story is partially spun. While his place in the social activist movement is deserving, it should not be viewed as greater than that of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Ruben (both of whom Lennon befriended and joined up with), or Angela Davis and Bobby Seale, all of whom fought harder and suffered greater for the cause. As for the wiretapping allegations and such, it also happened to the other individuals too when perceived as a national threat by the FBI.
Lennon’s edge is his eccentricity, which provides some comic relief, as well as his musical gifts. The film also plays on the media perception of him as a nutcase – such as when he and Yoko held a press conference concealed inside a large white bag. Much of Lennon’s domestic life is left out. No mention of his public drunkenness – which was heavily detailed in the tabloids – his separation from Yoko for a time, or their addiction to heroin. But there is a glimpse into the birth of his son with Yoko towards the end. Simply put, The U.S. vs. John Lennon is an account of an evolution of one profile (rock star) evolving into another (social activist).
Nonetheless, the film is enjoyable for nostalgia sake. It is well-made, entertaining and, given the history-repeating scenario of the current United States administration, relevant to contemporary times.
What do you think of The U.S. vs. John Lennon
Share your opinions on our forum