The U.S. vs. John Lennon (Lions Gate, PG-13)

Gore Vidal says, in a sobering moment, "Lennon stood for life; Nixon and Bush stand for death."

 

film_johnlennon

I‘m sick and tired of hearing things
From uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth.

So sang John Lennon in a song from his most famous solo album, Imagine, and it illustrates his mindset during the early '70s, when the ex-Beatle and his wife Yoko Ono were actively protesting the Vietnam War, along with thousands of American citizens. As the riveting new documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon makes clear, Lennon's highly visible position as a pop culture icon and outspoken immigrant made him a serious threat in the eyes of the Nixon administration, the FBI, and many other uptight officials. There was an active campaign to deport him, and it took the continuous delay tactics of his lawyer and, of course, his immense popularity to render that unlikely.

But Lennon's post-Beatle years were not peaceful ones; he had the courage of his conviction that the Vietnam debacle was wrong on every level, and he and Yoko staged bed-ins and other forms of peaceful protest to make their objections known. The trade-off: Lennon was forced to spend much of his time in court, and could not escape a continuing sense of paranoia. "The Man" wanted to come down on him, and come down hard. Writer-directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld had access to all kinds of prize footage for this project, much of it provided by Ono, who cooperated fully with the filmmakers (and provides insightful commentary). There are clips from Lennon home movies, news segments on now-legendary protests, and interviews with such period luminaries as Angela Davis, G. Gordon Liddy, Ron Kovic (the subject of the film Born on the 4th of July), Gore Vidal, and more. Even the intrepid Geraldo Rivera has a few interesting observations. But it's Lennon's own words and passion that make the greatest impression. "It keeps the conservatives happy that they're still trying to do something about me," says Lennon about the hounding he endured. "They're even willing to change their own rules to get me, just because we're peaceniks."

The powerful cultural angst of the time is captured memorably, especially through the heartfelt songs Lennon wrote during that tumultuous era. Tunes such as "Give Peace a Chance," "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier," "Power to the People," "Working Class Hero," "It's So Hard," and many more ring out with potent resonance due to their renewed relevance in our current war-weary climate. That's one of the saddest elements of this film, the fact that its central conflict is being played out again, all these years later. Once again, protesters are being monitored and hounded. Once again, rights are being threatened. Once again, a dishonest administration is doing everything it can to justify and prolong an unpopular war overseas.

As Gore Vidal says, in a sobering moment, "Lennon stood for life; Nixon and Bush stand for death." The film inevitably deals with Lennon's assassination, but it does so simply, without lingering or repeating what we all know too well. Instead, we are privy to the unforgettable charisma, passion, and creative energy of one of music's most important cultural spokesmen, a man who had an impact on millions and used the message in his songs to help give peace a chance.

Indeed, it's more than a little poignant to witness how effective Lennon was in so many ways, at a time when "power to the people" wasn't just an empty slogan. Compare that to the complacency and cultural apathy dominating so much of the political landscape today. The U.S. vs. John Lennon deserves to be widely seen, by all who admired Lennon's music as well as his conviction that the world could be a better place. "Anyone who sings about love and harmony is dangerous to those preoccupied with death," says one observer. This powerful documentary asks us to imagine a different reality, one that Lennon believed in with all his heart and soul, though his ability to continue putting his message across would be tragically halted by the dawn of the next decade.

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