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Sunday, September 10, 2006

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

I was about 14 or 15 when John Lennon and Yoko Ono became cultural heroes to me. Growing up in Tennessee, my main access to them, other than John’s albums of course, was the Dick Cavett Show. I was so entranced by the Cavett interviews that I taped them on my portable audio cassette recorder and transcribed them. (Yes, I was a media nerd even then. Luckily for all of us, those interviews are now available on DVD.)

The heady excitement that era conveyed, even to a teenager in the sticks like me, was brought back vividly by the new documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, written and directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld. The first half of the movie is especially exhilarating, powered by John’s irrepressible wit and by great footage from the art/media/political stunts the two of them carried out (strongly influenced by Yoko’s own innovative and provocative performance art), accompanied by generous excerpts from John’s music (36 songs are used, and they sound as fantastic as ever). Also very well told is the story of John and Yoko’s growing association with political radicals viewed by the U.S. establishment as much more alarming than their own gentle form of political theater – people like Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers’ Bobby Seale.

Yet once the film moves on to the government harassment that provides its title, it loses some steam. The attempts to tie the political situation of 1969-1972 to the present are not very convincing. Bush is not Nixon, Iraq is not Vietnam. (Of course, Iraq may, in fact, be much worse in some respects. But that doesn’t help this movie make its inapt comparison, which extends to its ad’s tag line: “War Is Over If You Want It.”) And the story of the harassment itself is just not as exciting or entertaining as, say, John and Yoko being interviewed while completely enclosed in a cloth bag, with wonderful Lennon tunes in the background.

The Nixon administration used the pretext of a marijuana conviction in England (framed, John said) to refuse to renew the Lennons’ visas and to try to deport them. But the film attempts to make this more ominous than it was. Of course we’re glad John and Yoko eventually won their court case, but even if they hadn’t, they would simply have had to move back to London and leave New York. There’s one brief recent interview clip in which Yoko claims they thought their lives were in danger, but there is very little if anything to back this up. (One aspect of the era that goes unmentioned is how all this may have affected John's career. He produced basically no new music between 1975 and 1979, concentrating instead on family life. His brief but shattering separation from Yoko is also passed over.)

Nonetheless, this movie serves as an entertaining and emotionally resonant biography of John Lennon, from his childhood to his still-shocking death. The photography, the editing, and the soundtrack are first-rate both technically and creatively – not every documentary is this pleasurable to watch and to listen to. At times during the wonderful first half, I felt like I was 14 again, flying high on music, idealism, and political performance art.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that the film is stronger in the first section. The film does not mention John's first wife and I'm sure one could argue that it doesn't need to. But in talking about the demands and parodices of fame, I find hiding your marriage from millions of fans to be profound. And the fact that it continues 26 years after his passing makes it more so.

I would be curious to know exactly what Yoko Ono means in her final statement: "They tried to kill John..." since the film presents no evidence for that. Deportation hardly equates to attempted murder.


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