The U.S. vs. John Lennon
There is a good movie to be made about John Lennonís treacherous transition from 1960s mop-top pop star to í70s political activist and political target, but The U.S. Vs. John Lennon is not that movie. The ideal, imagined movie would contrast the ex-Beatleís artistic genius with his political naivetť, his desire to do good with his desperate need to be taken seriously, his immortal political hymns with the political doggerel that was the worst music of his career. That picture would sketch the fallible, fascinating character that Lennon actually was.
The U.S. Vs. John Lennon is incapable of such a nuanced portrait because itís incapable of admitting Lennon had any serious failings. Maybe such hero worship was necessary to gain the cooperation of Lennonís widow, Yoko Ono, and her fellow guardians of Lennonís sainthood--Elliot Mintz, Jon Wiener, Bob Gruen, and so on--but the result is a long, slow slog through stock footage from the Nixon years and fatuous commentary by talking heads.
David Leaf, who did such a brilliant job on the 2004 music doc Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile, stumbles badly here as the co-director and co-writer with John Scheinfeld. Leaf was willing to acknowledge Wilsonís weaknesses as well as his strengths and to wring some real drama from the conflict between the two, but in brushing aside Lennonís weaknesses, Leaf banishes all tension from a movie that goes slack.
Leaf and Scheinfeld have assembled some remarkable footage--the familiar clips from the Mike Douglas and Dick Cavett TV shows as well as rare footage from a Free John Sinclair concert and Lennonís green-card ceremony. The soundtrack includes unreleased live performances and instrumental mixes as well as hit singles from the period. All thatís lacking is an interesting point of view. Yes, the Nixon administration tried to deport Lennon as part of its far-reaching political witch hunt against dissidents, but what can be learned from Lennonís response? In this movie, not much.
Typical of the movieís shallow thinking is the Gore Vidal comment that "anyone who sings about love and harmony is a threat to someone who is preaching hate and war." Huh? Abba sang about love and harmony. So why isnít this movie called The U.S. Vs. BjŲrn Ulvaeus? And why is Gore Vidal in a movie about John Lennon anyway?
In one clip, New York Times reporter Gloria Emerson tells Lennon that he is hurting his own cause by making himself look ridiculous with his bed-ins and his press conferences inside a big bag. Lennon responds that heís an artist, and he has to risk being ridiculous to shake up peopleís preconceptions. In that exchange is the germ of a fascinating debate about politics and art, the serious and the playful, but itís a debate that the filmmakers arenít interested in.
The song "Give Peace a Chance," for example, is introduced at an impromptu, celebrity-studded recording session during one of the bed-ins. The lyricsí simplistic but moving plea and the chorusís sing-along melody proved irresistible, and later footage shows the song being sung enthusiastically by ordinary people at demonstrations all over the world. Thereís no better example of a naive, ridiculous gesture having a big, positive impact, but the movie has no insights into how the former led to the latter.