DVD Review: The U.S. Vs. John Lennon
“Anyone who didn’t like this country could either shut up or leave. I think that’s what all of us felt.” Former FBI agent M Wesley Swearengen.
“I love the place. I’d like to be here, I’ve got a lot of friends here. This is where I want to be. Statue of Liberty, you know, “welcome.” I even brought my own cash.” John Lennon
These two quotes are not heard alongside each other during The U.S. vs. John Lennon, which has just been released on DVD in the States, but in their irreconcilable differences of perspective, they go a long way to explaining the documentary movie’s fascinating appeal. John Lennon, ex-Beatle, gets politicized, comes to America, immerses himself in the issues of the day, and decides he’d like to stay. The U.S. Government, as presided over by Richard Nixon in cahoots with the FBI, decides Lennon is an unwelcome agitator and should leave.
Lennon’s battle to stay in the States after he is hit with a deportation order forms the belated plot of this David Leaf/John Scheinfeld film, but the real story is that of post-Beatles Lennon himself. We see a man who had been thrust into the limelight in a manner never previously imagined and never possible to replicate, coming to terms with his fame, his fortune, his working class background and his power with the people, falling in love, enduring the ridicule of many fans, and attempting to make the world a better place through his words, his songs and his actions. He comes across as an incredibly articulate, witty and intelligent (but still angry) young man who knows that he doesn’t have all the answers, understands that he can’t change the world, but refuses to stop trying despite it all.
A master manipulator of the media that followed his every move, he and Yoko Ono turned their honeymoon into a bed-in for peace, declared their citizenship of Newtopia after a deportation hearing, even demanded to be interviewed inside a bag preaching ‘Total Communication.’ Yes, some of these stunts look like spoofs by The Rutles, but none are as futile in retrospect as the cynics suggested at the time.
Commentary is provided by a slew of mostly heavyweight fellow travelers and free thinkers, from Tommy Smothers to Walter Cronkite, Noam Chomsky to Tariq Ali, Geraldo Rivera to Felix Dennis, George McGovern to Mario Cuomo, John Sinclair to Bobby Seale, along with my esteemed editor and iJamming! Pubber Chris Charlesworth and the renowned photographer Bob Gruen. There is a startling lack of women – Angela Davis the only female interviewee other than Yoko – but a welcome absence of fellow rock stars. Rather, to confirm that Lennon’s paranoia did not mean they weren’t out to get him, we have the aforementioned FBI Agent Swearengen, and G. Gordon Liddy, the Nixon right hand man who did five years in prison (out of 20) for his role in Watergate.
Liddy in particular is fascinating, his presence confirming the “establishment” viewpoint. Of the 1970 Ohio Kent State massacre, in which four students were shot dead on campus by the National Guard, he states, unapologetically:
“You had 18 year old college kids without the sense that God gave a goose, going round challenging 18 year old kids with .30-.36 semi-automatic rifles. Yes they were in uniform, national guard, very little training, They felt threatened, they were armed, what did you think was going to happen?”
Yoko’s involvement in the film ensures that Lennon’s “lost weekend” – his year of heavy boozing and philandering in LA – is avoided entirely, and critics have a point that the movie is something of a uncritical love letter. But Yoko’s co-operation also enables an unprecedented use of Lennon’s music. ‘Revolution,’ ‘All You Need Is Love,’ ‘Working Class Hero,’ ‘Power To The People,’ ‘John Sinclair,’ ‘The Ballad Of John & Yoko,’ ‘Give Peace A Chance,’ ‘Imagine,’ ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over),’ ‘Instant Karma,’ ‘Gimme Some Truth’… what a stunning body of work. Lennon was often pilloried for the simplicity of his lyrics, but it wasn’t by accident that ‘all you need is love,’ ‘give peace a chance’ or ‘war is over, if you want it’ were monosyllabic phrases: Lennon knew they could be read, understood and sung in any number of languages. And for those who thought he was better in the Beatles, we see him arguing that point with the offensively patronizing New York Times journalist Gloria Emerson and getting the better of her as he does most people in a battle of words.
That doesn’t mean he wins the war. Fearing for their lives, he and Yoko back out of any plans to play the Democratic or Republican Conventions in 1972; Nixon, either despite or because of lowering the voting age to 18, gets re-elected in a landslide; the protest movement fades away. The INS carries on trying to deport Lennon but when, in the wake of Nixon’s resignation, the couple’s lawyer discovers that the White House had inserted itself illegally into the case, he sues the Government and wins. Perhaps by way of apology for the years of persecution, Lennon is awarded his green card on his birthday, the very same day his son Sean is born.
John, Yoko and Sean disappear from sight, spending quality time together as John never had in his own childhood. And then come the gunshots. Lennon has been shot dead by Mark Chapman, and it’s impossible not to shed tears along with the thousands shown in Central Park and elsewhere singing ‘Give Peace A Chance.’
“Well I suppose they tried to kill John, but they couldn’t because his message is still alive,” says Yoko, and we are left wondering if she means that “they” succeeded in 1980 where they had failed in the early 70’s. If she does, I’d love to hear more about it. Though I’m not much of one for conspiracy theories, I’ve never bought the “lone gunman” assumption about Mark Chapman. Lennon had just started making music again after five years absence and was showing signs of renewed politicization; meantime, Reagan was coming to power, and the USA was about to launch anti-Communist wars in Central America. It just seems awfully convenient that Lennon was suddenly silenced.
That, though, is a subject for another movie. For now, I came away with a clearer love and respect for Lennon the man, the solo artist, the radical, the lover, the peacenik. Hopefully, you will too. And if you do, you will surely reach the same conclusion: that you wish he could still be with us today.
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