The U.s. Vs. John Lennon

on September 15, 2006 by Ray Greene
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In this Che Guevara t-shirt of a film, the same cliche “them and us” shadow play that MTV and VH1 stage in everything they produce about the American 1960s is extended so excruciatingly that the era seems to occur year by year in real time. If you've ever watched a cable TV documentary, you already know the drill: Protest kids march in the streets. Martin Luther King shouts “I have a dream!” Napalm bombs explode over Vietnam. Richard Nixon sweats and looks insincere. A national paroxysm so violent and complex it still vibrates within the American body politic is reduced to an associative paradigm of white hats and black hats, using techniques as direct and unsophisticated as the sloganeering street politics of the period itself.

Usually this ritualistic montage takes up about three minutes in a typical discussion of the boomer generation and its formative experiences. In “The U.S. vs. John Lennon,” the entire first hour of a 99-minute film assumes this shape, punctuated by protracted swatches of Lennon recordings, which reduce all that overly familiar stock footage to leftist music video pastiche. The title is mostly a come-on: Very little time is spent on an examination of the Nixon administration's disgraceful and extralegal vendetta against Lennon in the early ‘70s, and what's here is shallowly presented given the reams of related documents unearthed by others under the Freedom of Information Act. No, the real intent of this movie is twofold: to reinvigorate Lennon's overly familiar back catalog (a finite resource that has already been repackaged to death) and to restage the American ‘60s (yet again) as an estate-sponsored passion play starring those merry pranksters of radical chic, John and Yoko.

Or maybe that should be Yoko and John, since the widow Lennon's uncredited input is all over this picture, often most vividly through what it chooses not to show. You'd never know, for example, that the Lennons separated for a full 18 months during the period of the Nixon persecutions, though songs from the resultant Yoko-free album (1974's “Walls and Bridges”) are all over the place, and there's even a modern interview on other topics with Tommy Smothers, who was the target of a notorious Lennon heckling incident during the Lennon/Ono split.

Missing also is any detailed look at Lennon's pre-Yoko soul mate Paul McCartney, despite a hefty slice of Beatles tunes in the early going. Instead, we get the by-now virtually ceremonial homage to Yoko, to Yoko's art, to Yoko's love for John and to John's love for Yoko, proving once more that the hand that controls the copyrights is the hand that rules the world. There are also interviews with people who saw them love each other and who mostly agree with their politics, as well as hefty and often rather amusing doses of Lennon's pithy interactions with journalists that are the film's strongest non-musical asset. Just don't expect political clarity, even from the charismatic John: Though there were plenty of “All You Need Is Love” fans who refused to cross the radical Rubicon when John and Yoko simultaneously embraced paramilitary revolutionaries like the Black Panther Party and released their poorest (and poorest- selling) album “Some Time in New York City,” “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” makes no real distinction between the attitudes of the hippie underground and the Weather Underground. It was all about peace, man. Any gradients beyond that would cut into the music video time.

Despite a few brave comments from interviewee Gore Vidal linking Vietnam to Iraq, this is an airless nostalgia piece that manages to take events with overt resonance for today and seal them hermetically in an impenetrable bubble of boomer self- adulation. There are probably 50-year-old federal agents working in the Bush administration's wiretapping division who will see “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” and whistle “Give Peace a Chance” on the way to the office the next morning. As the baby boomers, who so like to pat themselves on the back about peace marches most of them never participated in, continue to drag the country through another war of imperial volition, revolution is mostly being presented here as a comfy variation on the John Lennon brand. The songs are still good enough to warrant the additional attention, but the scale of the narcissistic self- delusion is staggering. Starring John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Richard Nixon. Written, directed and produced by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld. A Lionsgate release. Documentary. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, violent images and drug references. Running time: 99 min.
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