Those who are drawn to the darker side of John Lennon, the side from which came anomalies like the book A Spaniard in the Works or songs like “I Am the Walrus” and “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” may find this documentary from David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s about the murdered ex-Beatle’s political activism and his persecution by the Nixon administration a tad squeaky clean. It is, in fact, unabashed hagiography, not just of Lennon but also of his widow, Yoko Ono, who authorized the film and whose cooperation afforded the inclusion of some rare and astonishing footage and recordings. She did not, however, allow any tarnishing of John’s beatified image. None of the tormented, nasty, visionary, debauched, sordid, petty, or subversive aspects that in part made him the genius he was. And any references to Yoko as the evil woman who undid the Beatles and domesticated John are dismissively ironic.
What follows is a hymn to John’s martyrdom sung to the choir. It starts with his flirtation with radicalism, which, Leaf and Scheinfeld suggest, was initiated back in the 1966, when he said in an interview that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. When he married Yoko, in 1969, the flirtation turned serious. The pair appeared with Black Panther Bobby Seale on the Mike Douglas show. Lennon wrote and sang a song (a previously undiscovered gem) for a rally supporting jailed activist John Sinclair. Anti–Vietnam War rhetoric and the Bed-In for Peace followed.
But in case you didn’t know it, Nixon and his cronies were a bunch of bastards, and they sicced J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI on the pair and tried to get them deported. Nonetheless, John got his green card in 1976, and they lived happily after, except that Mark David Chapman shot him in 1980.
There are gaps in this account that the filmmakers fill with a relentless soundtrack of Lennon tunes hammering home their points (and in some cases contradicting them, if you listen to the lyrics). The parade of talking heads includes just about every lefty who was alive in the ’60s and still remembers the lyrics to “Imagine.” (George McGovern even sings it.) The right, meanwhile, is represented solely by G. Gordon Liddy. Although the film’s implied parallels to our current situation are sometimes breathtaking, by the end you might be begging along with John, “Just give me some truth.”
On the Web
The U.S. VS. John Lennon's Web site:http://www.theusversusjohnlennon.com/site/