The U.S. vs. John Lennon Review
By Shawn McKenzie 10/10/2006
David Leaf and John Scheinfeld wrote and directed this documentary about the period in former Beatle John Lennon’s life from where he met and later married Yoko Ono, through his anti-war activism with Ono, to the Richard Nixon administration’s attempt to silence him by trying to deport him (it essentially spans the years of 1966 to 1976.)
I am a big fan of three of the Beatles (Ringo is okay, but I wouldn’t consider myself a fan of his.) While Paul is my favorite, John is my second. The U.S. vs. John Lennon isn’t about the life of the man though…it’s about his political activism. Unlike other semi-political documentaries, I will forgive the unbalanced nature of it.
If you are a fan of Lennon, there won’t be a lot that hasn’t already been seen before. In 1988, a documentary came out called Imagine: John Lennon, which was cleverly narrated by Lennon himself using hundreds of hours of home footage. Yoko Ono signed off on it (mainly to combat the unflattering Lennon biography The Lives of John Lennon by Albert Goldman, which came out that same year), but she didn’t actively participate in it. Ono did participate in this one, and she granted access to several more hours of footage.
Ono was also one of the talking heads in the movie. Also giving their two cents were 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; American historian/novelist Gore Vidal; former New York Governor Mario Cuomo; and three-term Senator and Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern. Of all of the commentators, Liddy is the only one who has anything negative to say about the man (or at least his activism.) Everyone else is very complimentary about Lennon…making the movie extremely unbalanced (if you consider the movie political; Vidal makes the only comment in the movie comparing the Vietnam War period to the current Bush administration.) I didn’t mind though…because, unlike a Michael Moore movie who fabricates facts to support his opinion, this movie doesn’t make anything up.
That doesn’t mean that it includes everything about Lennon…including the bad things. It never mentions his famous temper or his separation from Ono at one point. If non-Lennon fans came to this movie not knowing these things, they would swear that he was just a joyful, playful person who never spent any time away from Ono. While this is mostly true, the movie glosses over anything negative about him.
Like I said before, the movie was mostly about his public controversies and not about his career (though he used his music frequently to comment on those controversies…much of which is heard in the movie.) The first controversy was his “bigger than Jesus” statement. It was said as an off-the-cuff remark to friend and London Evening Standard journalist Maureen Cleave in 1966, but when the story came out, there was a ban on all things Beatles (I actually cringed seeing the footage of the Beatles’ albums being destroyed. I kept thinking, “Do you realize how valuable those LP’s are today?”) Lennon later clarified his statement and apologized, and eventually the furor died down. I guess rock fans must be more forgiving than country music fans, since the country world still hasn’t forgiven the Dixie Chicks (a friend of mine and I bought their latest album, Taking the Long Way Home, to defend their right to free speech…and because we are huge Chicks fans.) The next controversy was that fans blamed Ono for the breakup of the Beatles. Lennon and Ono spent the next few years staging eccentric anti-war protests, such as the Bed-Ins and Bagism. The government just wrote them off as a couple of stoned hippies. It wasn’t until his appearance at the December 10, 1971 Freedom Rally concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan (held to protest the ten-year prison sentence of John Sinclair, an anti-war activist who had been busted for selling two joints of marijuana to an undercover cop) that they became concerned. The concert was so successful that it convinced the state of Michigan to release Sinclair from prison two days later…proving how powerful Lennon’s influence could be. They were also concerned by his friendships with activists Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Black Panther Party member Seale. With the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18, millions of new eligible voters could possibly now vote against Nixon. Spurred by a suggestion made by Republican Senator Strom Thurmond that “deportation would be a strategic counter-measure,” the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) began deportation proceedings against Lennon, arguing that his 1968 misdemeanor conviction for cannabis possession in London had made him ineligible for admission to the US. The legal battle took years to resolve, but he was eventually granted a Green Card in 1975…the day of his 35th birthday and the day that his son with Ono, Sean Ono Lennon, was born.
The way they end the movie is a drag though. Instead of just doing a post-script of the whole Mark David Chapman murder of Lennon thing, they have a couple of sounds of gunshots filling the air and news reports of his assassination. It brings down the whole tale of the Working Class Hero.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon was produced by VH1 for Lionsgate Films, and following its theatrical and DVD release, it will premiere on VH1 as part of its “Rock Docs” series. One of the things that I was concerned about was its eligibility for an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature, because I consider it one of the better docs of the year (I was thinking…since it might be shown on television before the end of the year…that it would be ineligible. I realized that theatrical fictional films released in January sometimes premiere on television later that year on the premium channels, so I don’t think that the producers of this movie should worry.) I think that many people will enjoy the movie despite their political opinions, and only Lennon haters will avoid it. All I am saying is give this film a chance!
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